Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2002

Narrative and Conversion:

Voegelin and Jonas on Freedom in Augustine

  Copyright 2002 Fred Lawrence


The writings of Augustine analyzed by Voegelin and Jonas have to do with the transformative liberation of the human race from the disorientation and cupidity due to sin through divine grace. Eric Voegelin refers frequently to a myth in St Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos 64(65) that, in its lovely compactness, expresses a complete philosophy (and theology, I might add) of history:

Incipit exire qui incipit amare.

Exeunt enim multi latenter,

et exeuntium pedes sunt cordis affectus;

exeunt autem de Babylonia. 

This passage from On the Psalms takes the form of compact and undifferentiated religious allegory. Hans Jonas’s Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem: Eine philosophische Studie zum pelagianischen Streit uncovers a mythico-dogmatic elaboration of elements for a philosophy of the human will’s dialectical freedom. In both cases, the effective freedom of the human race is at issue.

Jonas contrasted Augustine’s comments on Romans 7 in a pre-Pelagian letter to his friend Simplicianus (396) with those written in the context of anti-Pelagian polemics in the second decade of the fifth century. In these texts, Christian dogmatic concerns about the teaching on saving grace and the need for infant baptism complicate the symbolization of phenomenologically accessible experience, which is itself descriptively thematizable in some measure. These entanglements prompted Jonas to clarify the hermeneutical and methodological issues required to sort out these complications. Just as Voegelin wrote “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History” to elucidate his position, so in “On the Hermeneutic Structure of Dogma” Jonas explained the relationship between realities apprehended experientially and on the other hand, the propositional expression of dogmas, which he there calls “mythological.” This use of the term ‘myth’ has a more rationalist tone than Voegelin’s; and it is also more pejorative than in his normal usage from the time of his studies of Gnosticism onwards.

Nonetheless, there is much shared in common by Voegelin’s and Jonas’s respective understandings of the relationship between experience and expression, or experience and symbolization. I have discussed Voegelin’s approach elsewhere, so I will concentrate on Jonas’s account here.

Jonas on the Hermeneutical Structure of Dogma

Jonas expresses the core presupposition of his book on Augustine as follows:

All this emerges from an unavoidable basic structure of the human spirit as such: That it interprets itself in objectifying formulae and symbols, that it operates “symbolically,” is most essential to the spirit—and most dangerous as well. In order to come to oneself, one naturally takes this detour through the symbol, in whose enticing whirl of problems one tends to get lost, by regarding the substitutional element absolutely and distancing onself from the origin symbolically preserved in the symbolism—and only through a long process of reconstruction, in accord with an exhaustive measure-taking the of that detour—is a demythologized consciousness capable of approaching with conceptual directness the primordial phenomenon hidden under such a disguise (compare the long path of the dogma of original sin down to Kierkegaard). [82]

According to Jonas, in their outward shape, dogmas possess a rational, propositional structure in what Aristotle and Heidegger called the “apophantic” form of subject-object statements. Such statements locate their propositional contents in the realm of seemingly objective states of affairs that are susceptible of normal logical sorting. However, these statements and their component images actually function as symbolisms reflecting primordial inward and existential events. The imagery in these symbolisms projects objects in the mode of either entities or events perceivable by the senses. Because the symbolisms are analogous to subhuman things and events in space and time, they are more amenable to being integrated into a unified horizon that apparently refers to objective reality. At the same time, unfortunately, it is only by being detached from their originating experiential matrices that the symbols become available for manipulation, as if they were determinate rational structures in the world of theory.

Such symbolisms emerge from a process of objectification of human experience motivated by people’s desire to understand and interpret themselves and their experience. However, according to Jonas, the context of the development of dogma adds to this spontaneous and humanly inevitable process a ‘transcendentalizing’ dimension that makes the objectifying symbolism ‘metaphysical’ or ‘mythological,’ because its referent so far surpasses human experience that it is no longer phenomenologically retrievable within the scope of the originating experiences from which the objectification arose. Jonas points out that this transcendentalizing indication of the ‘known unknown’ plays a crucial role in the attainment of self-knowledge through self-representation. However significant transcendentalized symbolisms are for the knowledge intended by faith, they become fodder for Enlightenment critique.

For Jonas the transcendentalizing dimension of the symbolization involves a basic ontological transformation of the data of both inner and outer experience down to their most elementary structures. As is the case for Voegelin, this translation into another universe of being amounts to a hypostatization of existententially retrievable realities into thing-like and perceivable entities, which can be univocally integrated into a spatialized and externalized thought-world. Hypostatization turns symbolisms into unequivocal, undialectical objective concepts that become the basis for fixed propositions and comprehensive theoretical constructs, whose abstract unity obeys the logical rules of coherence and inference.

Jonas’s hermeneutical task, then, is to use his appropriation of the immanent and operative structures of Dasein as a the basis for a version of the Sachkritik espoused by his teacher, Rudolf Bultmann, in the wake of the ‘hermeneutic revolution’ inaugurated by Karl Barth’s Römerbrief commentary. Sachkritik is indissociably connected with phenomenology’s motto about returning to the Sache selbst. The point is that you cannot understand what an author means about the reality X unless you understand reality X. Hence, David Levy evokes Jonas’s thesis in “Change and Permanence: On the Possibility of Understanding History” that “the possibility of interpretation rests on shared possession by the interpreter and his object of a common human horizon founded in certain foundational and enduring features of human nature and response.”

In the case of the Freiheitsproblem, Jonas explicates the structure of human freedom—in its inevitably dialectical relationship to moral renunciation and insufficiency—in terms of existential interiority. With this in mind he establishes the core anthropological meaning both of the Stoic position on human freedom and of Paul’s teaching about moral insufficiency in Romans 7. This in turn allows him to retrieve what he considers the creative misinterpretations of this passage by Augustine both before and after the Bishop of Hippo’s preoccupation with errors of Pelagius and his followers, and by Pelagius himself.

Jonas, then, translates the dogma of original sin as an attempt to symbolize the mutual mediation of freedom and unfreedom in people’s moral experience. Similarly, he construes the dogma of predestination as a symbolization of our human experience of life under the auspices of a fateful dispensation over which we ultimately have no control whatsoever. These dogmas are ‘mythological’ or ‘metaphysical,’ symbolizations, which employ terms and relations that are impossible to retrieve within our experience of existential interiority. If, aside from the ecclesial defense of infant baptism, they arose from a need to answer questions about human existence, because of their detachment and displacement away from human experience they lead to such bad questions, whether it be how to reconcile God’s action and human freedom, or the notorious issue regarding God’s goodness and justice in the face of sin and evil in the world—questions that, according to Jonas, cannot be rationally adjudicated or phenomenologically resolved in terms of the human experience of existential interiority. Prima facie, Voegelin possesses a more capacious account of consciousness than Jonas. In the Freiheitsproblem Jonas gives a rather Heideggerian and Kantian account of that dynamism of consciousness, which Voegelin identified as “luminosity.” Both authors basically agree with Kant in confining the range of the intentional aspect of consciousness to the sense perceptions of objects in the world of space and time; but they are not satisfied with that agreement. Jonas’s analysis of the problem of freedom—the theme of his study on contrasting interpretations of Romans 7: 7-25—seems at least to acknowledge consciousness’s luminosity implicitly by insisting that an adequate phenomenology of freedom can, and even must, come to terms with interior existential experiences that are antinomous, to use Kant’s term. It is impossible to make sense of Jonas’s claims without becoming expressly aware of structures in our conscious experience which, even though, because unable to be perceived ad instar sensible objects, they cannot be objectively known. For Voegelin, the conditioning of intentional consciousness by luminosity can be responded to in word and deed; for Jonas the emphasis is on rationally thinking through our antinomous experience of freedom and unfreedom in terms of universality and necessity.

In the end, then, there is not much disagreement between the relatively young Jonas and the relatively mature Voegelin on this issue. However, in the specific area of the liberation of human freedom, there are pervasive differences of content and tone. These differences can be provisionally characterized by saying that Jonas is more rationalist in approach than Voegelin.

Jonas and Voegelin on Augustine on the Problem of Freedom


Eric Voegelin’s analysis of Augustine’s passage in On the Psalms 64(65).2 occurs in the essays “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” [Published Essays 1966-1985 The Collected Works 12 Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press 1990) 52-94 at 78] and “Configurations of History” [Ibid. 104-6]; Voegelin explains that Augustine’s taking up of the myth of exodus expresses, more clearly and precisely than in The City of God, the basic structure of both personal existence and history. At the basis of both Augustine’s commentary and Voegelin’s retrieval lies the generalization of Augustine’s own experience: people need to be loved into knowing that they are loved; but before they actually know, their hearts respond.

The first verse of the Psalm begins, In finem, psalmus David, canticum Ieremiae et Ezechielis, ex popolo transmigrationis, cum inciperent exire. In the series of Old Testament exoduses (Abraham from the Chaldees, Moses from Egypt), Augustine refers to Israel’s and Judah’s exodus from the Babylonian exile to Jerusalem. Augustine says Babylon stands for confusion, which Voegelin interprets as disoriented self-love. Jerusalem, to which the one leaving Babylon is returning, is the true goal of the quest for happiness, the beata visio, the beata vita, abandoning the love of self and turning towards the love of God. Hence,

He begins to leave who begins to love.

Many the leaving who know it not,     

 for the feet of those leaving are the affections of the heart:   

 and yet, they are leaving Babylon.

To fail to keep the law, either in the sense of the inner law of nature given with human reason or of the Mosaic Law, is to have fallen away from the love of God above all things into the sinful condition of disordered self-love. For Voegelin it is crucial that escaping from the sinful life (symbolized by departure from Babylon) to life in the light of the love of God (symbolized by turning towards Jerusalem) does not happen to us because of our own knowing and deciding:

It as a subconscious process at first, for the walk of departure, the manner in which they abandon the world, is a movement of the heart toward the love of God. And even if it is so subconscious that perhaps they do not even know it themselves, they nevertheless depart from Babylon, and are engaged in an exodus toward the heavenly Jerusalem. [105-6]

‘Subconscious’ here means conscious but not yet explicitly known. Even after the soteriological symbolism so prominent in The New Science of Politics was dropped, Voegelin still seems to hold that whenever the movement of the heart away from the entanglements of our disordered self-love towards the love of God happens, God’s free and undeserved gift becomes consciously effective in our lives even before it is explicitly known (“Many the leaving who know it not.”). As the First Letter of John puts it, “This is the revelation of God’s love for us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him. Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent his Son to expiate our sins.” [1 Jn 4.10-11] Paul expresses this dynamic similarly: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Cor 4.6]

The cause of the movement of exodus is conscious because Voegelin calls it a tension toward God. This notion of living in the tension returns like refrains throughout the Voegelin oeuvre, nowhere more tellingly or beautifully than in the artful interweaving of meditations on Plato’s dialogues and on the Gospels in “The Gospel and Culture.” At the center of the dynamism is mystical experience as shared by noetically differentiated philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and by pneumatically differentiated religious thinkers such as St Paul and St John. They have in common lives lived in tension towards the divine ground of being. Such mystical experience, while perhaps partially expressed in doctrines or dogmas, is far more profound and existentially primordial, as Voegelin stressed in his discussion of Jean Bodin.

For Voegelin, the politically disruptive derailments of this tension toward the divine ground occur in the apocalyptic replacement of the tension by the objectifying escape into the perfected kingdom of God (whether in religious [Daniel, Apocalypse of John] or in secular [the Jacobins, Comte, Marx] terms); or by the Gnostics’ objectifying escape into an otherworldly beyond. Apocalypticism is escape into future time; Gnosticism is escape into future time. A third way of missing the tension is to establish an ecumenic empire. These derailments cannot be explored here, except to say that precisely they are associated by Voegelin with the Schimpfwort, objectification.


Hans Jonas’ groundbreaking interpretation of Augustine on the Pauline problem of freedom was written by an assimilated German Jew. In a way that Voegelin himself explicitly rejected, Jonas maintains the strict distinction between philosophy and theology, between what can be revealed by profound phenomenological reflection on human experience and what is knowable to believers in theologoumena or revealed doctrines/dogmas. In his response to Professor Altizer, Voegelin explains why this distinction only makes sense when philosophy itself is acknowledged to be, in the words of Anselm of Canterbury, fides quaerens intellectum.

Like Leo Strauss, his contemporary and fellow Jew who was also deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger, Jonas would never be forgetful of Jerusalem. But, whereas Strauss considered himself a reviver of Platonic rationalism within the vital tension between Athens and Jerusalem, Jonas is distinctly and unapologetically a modern rationalist. His renderings of Paul’s attitudes toward the law show how, like Strauss, he prizes above all the rationality of the Mosaic law. Perhaps like his great German Jewish predecessor, Hermann Cohen, Jonas saw no incompatibility between Paul’s Torah piety and the Kantian conception of the human being’s innate relationship to the moral law. It would appear that for Jonas, to be a good Jew (as Paul had clearly intended to be) was to live one’s life in terms of precisely the respect for the law which Kant considered to be the core of human dignity and autonomy. Nevertheless, when he wrote this work for Bultmann before emigrating from Germany, Jonas did not shy away from using Heideggerian language and motifs in his writing.

We must keep clearly in mind Jonas’s desire to remain rigorously philosophical (in a sense Voegelin eschews as at best depassé ) in order to come to terms with the gravamen of Jonas’s interpretation of Augustine’s comments on Romans 7:7-25. Jonas shows that in each of the two wrestles with Paul’s text considered by Jonas, the great Father of the Christian West failed to construe Paul’s meaning correctly. As any careful reader of Confessions knows, Augustine searches for the truth through philosophical rhetoric, and he commonly subjects the literal meaning of biblical texts to his own pedagogical concerns. In the pre-Pelagian stage of Ad Simplicianum, Jonas tells us, Augustine turns into a step-by-step historical and personal mystagogy of conversion Paul’s meditation on the relative roles of law and grace in both revealing the human being’s insufficiency in the face of God and the law, and in overcoming that insufficiency. Thus Augustine imposes on Paul his own periodization of salvation-history in terms of the stages ‘before the law’ (the original state of Adam, when man could do either good or evil) ‘under the law’ (the fallen state, when man can almost never do anything but evil), ‘after the law’ (when the moral impotence of fallen man is revealed for what it is), and ‘under grace’ (which bestows Christian freedom in good, which is charity).

Even more vehemently, then, Jonas insists that Augustine’s anti-Pelagian interpretation of Paul’s Romans 7 is also flawed by its overwhelming polemical preoccupations, not the least of which is the need to degrade the power of human nature and to magnify the necessity of grace in order to justify infant baptism. Augustine’s brief for the primacy of grace leads him to make Paul show how moral impotence so corrupts unaided good will, that even the desire to keep the law—prior both (1) to one’s realizing one’s moral impotence and (2) to having one’s will liberated by grace—can only arise with God’s supernatural aid. For Jonas, this was not Paul’s concern, so that there is little in the passage to justify Augustine’s interpretation.

Moreover, Jonas makes the case as a philosopher that, in terms of Sachkritik, the transformative role ascribed to supernatural grace ‘doesn’t have a leg to stand on.’ I have already mentioned Jonas’s opinions on the dogmas of original sin and predestination. In the chapter entitled “Critical Remarks on Augustine’s Conceptuality,” Jonas pours rationalist scorn on the supernatural character of God’s election and the “pouring out into our hearts of the Holy Spirit who is given to us,” about which Paul writes so forcibly at Romans 5: 5.

At the end of the day, and especially in his third appendix, “Philosophical Reflection on Paul, Romans 7,” Jonas admits that all he can do as a philosopher is to prescind from the experience of grace and from whatever light and freedom it bestows on human beings. He turns instead to a phenomenologico-philosophical retrieval of the “will” as

the fundamental mode of being of Dasein in general, ... the formal-structural fact that the being of Dasein is such that in each of its actualities something or other is its concern, and that the final concern in all the variable ones is its own being as the ultimate task of this being itself. In brief, ‘will’ signifies what Heidegger explicates under the head of ‘care.’ The formula ‘being an issue for itself’ circumscribes what we mean by the reflection of the will. [“The Abyss of the Will: Philosophical Meditation on the Seventh Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” Philosophical Essays. From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Chicago: University of Chicago, Midway Reprint, 1974) 339.]

  So, if the efficacy of supernatual grace is akin to “magic” for Jonas, and if Augustine simply manhandles Paul’s text, what does Jonas believe that Paul’s teaching is all about? It is not about transformation or anything analogous to the myth of exodus in our discussion of Voegelin. For his contribution to the Bultmann Festschrift, Jonas demoted the the title of the third appendix of Freiheitsproblem, “Philosophical Reflection on the Seventh Chapter of Paul Epistle to the Romans,” to a subtitle for the title, “The Abyss of the Will.” The change is significant. Traditionally, Christians interpreted the symbolism of homo abyssus in light of the effective history of Augustine’s famous evocation of the “restless heart” that can find rest only in the infinite, eternally good God, who transcends created space and time. Here the symbolism of abyss is colored by Nietzsche and Heidegger. They were the first to sublate the Kantian dichotomy of heteronomy/autonomy into deeper perspective provided by the secular contrast between authenticity and unauthenticity.

I have already alluded to the Jonas’s deep reverence for the Kantian respect for the law, which implies that even the most craven criminals know they ought to obey the law coeval with their reason, and who thereby realize that they can freely determine themselves by ‘giving themselves the law.’ This deep appreciation of Kant’s lofty and selfless morality is where Jonas’s Jewishness immunized him from Heidegger’s moral vagaries.

It remains that the young Heidegger apprehended all the basic motifs of Sein und Zeit when he interpreted Book X of the Confessions: ipse mihi occurro; quaestio mihi sum; molestia (oneri) mihi sum; life as a tentatio; and cura [Bekümmerung, care]. By equating Augustine’s molestia with facticity, Heidegger decisively naturalized sin. This is confirmed when next he turned to interpreting Aristotle’s teaching about the mean in the Nicomachean Ethics. There he conflates the ease with which, according to Aristotle, most people miss the mean of excellence by either excess or defect with a regularity akin to sinfulness. In his Aristotle interpretation, Heidegger went on to thematize this innate structure of human facticity in terms of Ruinanz: the inevitable human inclination toward self-destructiveness, sometimes exultant, sometimes not.

This teaching seems not to have been lost on Jonas. His absolutely riveting philosophic meditation on Romans 7, as it were, ‘Nietzscheanizes’ his Kantian view of the will’s autonomy by combining it with his own revision of Kant’s teaching on basic evil in Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft. The body of the essay is devoted to demonstrating the dialectical equiprimordiality of moral renunciation and insufficiency with human freedom. According to Jonas the appropriation of our human existence in which we freely constitute ourselves and our world reveals that concretely and experientially, human freedom and lack of freedom mutually condition each other.

Although Jonas’s teaching has Nietzschean resonances, especially in his agreement about the dubiousness of Christian apologetics’ tendency to rub human beings’ noses in the panoply of their own baseness, his affinity for Kant’s lofty morality elevates his explication of this antinomy into a portrayal of the human condition that echoes Pascal’s  evocation of the human tension between glory and dust. However noble his meditation on Romans 7, Jonas eliminates what for Voegelin is all-important: the periagoge, conversion, exodus that effects the transformation of the closed soul into an open soul oriented to the divine ground in virtue of the synergy of the divine and human poles of the tension.

Concluding Remarks on Augustine

Neither Voegelin nor Jonas are particularly concerned, as Augustine was, about the intricacies of a Christian theology of grace. Nor did either of them trace in detail the changes Augustine’s thought underwent as he worked out the doctrine of grace, which was adopted by the Christian church at what must certainly have seemed to them to be obscure and irrelevant African councils of bishops. However, as Augustine made clear in De doctrina Christiana, you have not only to practice the hermeneutics of love—which I have no doubt both Jonas and Voegelin did—but also to practice the hermeneutics of consent to the Church’s creeds, which for him is a consent rooted in liturgical practice. Neither Voegelin nor Jonas did that. This is the locus of Christian narrative and conversion.

Only in the context of the union of minds and of hearts constitutive of the ecclesial community can dogmatization be understood to be not just an unfortunate entrapment in a hypostatized dead-end for the philosophically stultified and the mystically deprived, but a concrete solution for a troubled and disturbed community that is undergoing an identity crisis: a common confession of faith, which makes both affirmations of factual truth and judgments of value. As Augustine makes clear in early Christianity’s fundamental work on hermeneutics of love just mentioned, such a common confession can guide the community’s apprehension of the analogy of faith contained in canonical scriptures. And that is what Augustine openly does.

Augustine was a mind at work. At the time of his Letter to Simplicianus, his understanding of the Christian teachings on the necessity of a grace disproportionate to human nature was relatively undeveloped. It was as a churchman and bishop that Augustine found himself forced to develop his self-understanding. He had to come to terms with, and indeed to develop the explicit formulations for, the liturgical lex orandi and the traditional Christian (and Jewish?) belief that the human race’s inherited guilt and the dominance of pride and cupidity render unaided human freedom ineffective over the long run, so that without sacramental baptism and the gift of the Spirit, no one can continuously do good and avoid evil.

In the earlier stages of Augustine’s understanding (roughly expressed in ad Simplicianum), he held that the basic power of natural human desire and of the freedom of the will, as the capacity to do good or evil, were powerfully complemented by a congruous election or vocation on God’s part. In the course of the evolution of his thought, he realized that the essence of freedom is voluntariness or antecedent willingness, in the sense that one follows one’s delight (delectatio) whether in doing good or evil. At last he became convinced that freedom to do the good could only be the result of God’s gift of the Spirit; and that free choice without the gift of God’s love amounted to no more than servitude in evil.

Augustine radicalized Aristotle’s teaching about the three ways of life as philosophical, political, or only interested in security and comfort or pleasure into two options—love of self above all things even to the contempt of God, or love of God above all. There result three fundamental orientations in life: the gift of charity, the love of one’s own power (pride), delight in lower things (cupidity). Augustine’s acute grasp of the meaning of habit (or what Lonergan later called the law of psychological continuity) led him to articulate the implications of the Pauline ‘reign of sin’ (which is the probability or expectation of sin doctrinalized under the term original sin): without God’s gift of love, pride and cupidity are bolstered by ignorance, blindness of heart due to the needs of the body, and concupiscence or disordered desire.

As Augustine came to understand the Christian narrative more deeply within the framework of the Adamic symbolism of Romans 5: 6-12, the original defection from charity and fall into pride and cupidity occurred in the first Adam of the Garden of Eden. The resultant condition of fallenness makes sin ‘second nature’ from the onset of each human life. The original reversal and healing of this condition is brought about in history by the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who, as a divine person and the Son of God, “became flesh to suffer and die, and thereby to touch our hard hearts and lead us to eternal life.”

Salvation, then, is falling in love with God who is effective in a way that is disproportionate to any merely human acts of knowing, willing, and doing. This conversion is imperfect and gradual in this terrestrial life, and the perfect only in the Beatific Vision. The doctrines of God’s election and predestination are ways of underlining against Pelagianism that such falling in love, the outpouring of the Spirit of charity in our hearts to replace pride and cupidity, overcomes inherited guilt and the probability of sin—the defection of the creature from the love of God to disordered love of self and of creatures—without previous human merits. Even faith (as shown forth in infant baptism) is gratuitous: it is the eyes of being in love with God, since God’s love produces our assent and consent; neither faith nor baptism is a work.

Hence, for Augustine, the dogmas of original sin, election, and predestination simply articulate the grammar of the narrative drama stated in John 3: 16: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” It remains that the economy of grace has two aspects. Election or predestination chiefly means that the grace of conversion is operative, in the sense that when we are converted our wills are moved and not movers; God does the moving.

Once converted, the pilgrim’s life of grace is imperfect, so there is always need for more operative grace. The Holy Spirit bestows delight in the justice demanded by the law, but not enough to guarantee that every contrary pleasure or pain will be overcome. The gift of grace therefore causes but does not guarantee good choice and performance across the board. Augustine always stressed that God can create us without us, but not save us without us. Our personal consent and effort are integral, so that the grace of final salvation is both operative and cooperative or merited. The key point is that there are no merits prior to the gift of God’s grace, only afterwards. At this stage of Christian thought, Augustine’s notion is that non-Christians may recognize what is good and perform it, but they probably will not have the intentionality and consistency needed for salvation.

For Augustine, in his later comments on Paul, the normal sequence in the narrative drama of salvation is law, Gospel, and charity, and conversion means the reversal of human pride and pretense by accepting God’s offer in Christ of forgiveness and assistance. Stage center is the divine sovereignty of election. But the story is not one of arbitrary rule. Things are in an intractable state because of human evil-doing. What people need is God’s initial gift of creation, and then, because of God’s mercy (Romans 9:16), his decisive gift of vocation to grace, which is the will to accept God’s offer. The story is of a Father who gives the charity which causes love and good performance, and empowers human choice and performance both in believing and in doing good. What Augustine realized in thinking out conversion was that choice recedes into the background in favor of a God-given change in orientation from demonic or human cupidity to charity. The key to the shift is not simply forgiveness and instruction in goodness, but a gratuity that does not depend on prior choice or performance, and an efficacy that supports us from from the time of our conversion until our final salvation.

He begins to leave who begins to love.      

Many the leaving who know it not,

for the feet of those leaving are the affections of the heart:

and yet, they are leaving Babylon.


  Mythic Truth and the Art of Science:

Hans Jonas and Eric Voegelin on Gnosticism and the Unease of Modernity

Copyright 2002 David J. Levy


1952 was a crucial year for those interested in the relevance of the category of Gnosticism to the understanding of the specificity and especially the specifically identifiable political and spiritual disorders of modernity. Most famously it saw the publication of Eric Voegelin's 1951 Charles L. Walgreen lectures, delivered at the University of Chicago, as The New Science of Politics. This proved to be Voegelin's most widely noted book and central to its thesis was the argument that the political culture developed in the West since the period of the high middle ages was marked by a disordering phenomenon, modern gnosticism, that, by reason of the claim of its more or less self-aware devotees to a form of salvational knowledge capable of delivering mankind from the otherwise knowable constraints of political existence, bore a marked affinity and stood to some degree in historical continuity with the world denying heresies condemned by the Church fathers and such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus as Gnosticism. This was a theme to which Voegelin was to return in later writings, notably his inaugural lecture "Science, Politics and Gnosticism", delivered in Munich in November 1958, and the article "Ersatz Religion" which appeared in the journal Wort und Warheit in in 1960. Together with the translation of Voegelin's final pre-war book, The Political Religions, these writings, in which the author's considerable polemical gifts are much in evidence, now form Volume Five of his Collected Works. (1)

Despite the fact that the category of gnosticism tends to disappear from his later analyses and that the name given to an empirically identifiable political phenomenon is always arguably secondary to the establishment of its existence and significance, the forcefulness and apparent eccentricity of Voegelin's designation of modernity as "gnostic" in the eyes of more mainstream and less acute political scientists has guaranteed that it remains to this day the theme by which he is best remembered in the academically orthodox establishment. More relevant to the theme of the present paper is the fact that among students of Gnosis as a general and not necessarily Christian-heretical feature of the early centuries of the Common Era Voegelin's use of the term gnosticism has, where not ignored, been received in a spirit of generally unfavourable criticism, even by scholars as generally sympathetic to his hermeneutical approach as Hans Jonas. Clarification of some of the reasons for this is a primary purpose of the present paper.

1952, the year of the publication of Voegelin's New Science, also witnessed the appearance of Hans Jonas's article "Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism" in the journal Social Research. Later reprinted as an appendix to his book The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1958) and included as well as the ninth essay comprising The Phenomenon of Life (Chicago, 1966), this essay attempts persuasively to establish the revealing parallels between the world-view of ancient Gnosis and that of the existentialism of Jonas's philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger. Unlike Voegelin, Jonas is recognised as an authority on the history and character of the Gnosticism of ancient times, both by virtue of the English work mentioned above and because of his two volume German study Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (Tubingen 1934 and 1954). These works, and perhaps especially that in English, constitute to this day the best, most vivid and philosophically perceptive introduction to the weird yet strangely familiar world of a once widespread religious universe that is today represented in living form only by the small communities of the Mandaeans of Southern Iraq, who claim as their founder John the Baptist, and of whom a considerable proportion now live as new immigrants to Australia.

There are affinities but also crucial differences between Voegelin's application of the term "gnostic" to the political culture of modernity and Jonas's perception of near identity between the world-rejecting creed of ancient Gnosis and what he sees as the nihilistic implications of Heidegger's existentialism. To these I shall return, but for the moment I want to draw attention to what is the central reason why students of Gnosticism as a religious phenomenon of the first centuries of the Christian era regard Voegelin's characterisation of modernity as gnostic with suspicion. Essentially this reason is simple and for those who hold it decisive. Voegelin sees the essence of modern gnosticism as being to displace the hope of heavenly salvation to the plane of worldly existence - a goal to be brought about by revolutionary action carried out by men who claim to possess a privileged knowledge of how this quasi- ontological transformation can be attained. By contrast the salvational knowledge embodied in all variants of ancient Gnosis, from the subtle speculation of Valentinus to the teachings of Mani, through whom Gnosticism achieved the status of a world-religion with a universal ambition, albeit one that was ultimately to be persecuted to the point of extinction through an orbit that at times extended from North Africa to China, aims at redeeming not the world or its inhabitants but at liberation of a purely spiritual element from the irredeemable evil of earthly entrapment.

Despite a shared reliance on a form of salvational insight, considered as something both apart from and superior to common knowledge, between modern revolutionary sectarians and the ancient Gnostics, there is, as Voegelin himself admits in The New Science of Politics, a clear difference between the world-immanent schemes of the ideologues of revolution and the cosmically transcendent goal of original Gnosis. One aims at raising a remediable earth and its incarnate beings to a qualitatively higher level of being: the other aims at escaping a form of being, incarnate existence, that can never be so redeemed. Equally while the saving knowledge of the so called modern gnostic is seen as acquired by the elect or revolutionary vanguard from within this world, often in a form described, as in Comte's positivism or Marxian socialism, as "science", its apparent equivalent for the ancient believer is introduced to the world by an alien messenger dispatched by the supra-cosmic source of spiritual being who is alone the proper object of Gnostic veneration. As an aside it is worth noting an echo of this second, ancient view when Martin Heidegger declared, famously if rather gnomically, to his interviewer from Der Spiegel: "Only a god can save us." In Science, Politics and Gnosticism Voegelin characterises Heidegger as the most subtle of modern gnostics. But, judged by the criteria of ancient Gnosis and the words of the Spiegel interview, he was, apart the surviving Mandaeans, its only modern representative -- an interesting conceit for sure but one which drives a coach and horses through Voegelin's broader designation of revolutionary modernity as gnostic to its core. However great may be the influence of Heidegger on the current intellectual scene we can scarcely see it as retrospective to the point of having formed the opinions of the 13th Century cleric Joachim of Flora, whom Voegelin regards as the fons et origo of modern gnostic speculation nor reasonably suppose that the mass of voguish post-Heideggerian theorists have been most persuaded by what is, even in a notoriously complex opus, one of their master's more mysterious pronouncements.

Certainly in "Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism" Jonas points to parallels in vocabulary and world-view between Heidegger and the Gnostics, drawing particular attention to the near-identity between the Heideggerian and Valentinian formulations of our having been "thrown" into a world in which we are not, or not as yet, our "authentic" selves. But this affinity is neither enough for Jonas to call Heidegger a Gnostic nor apparently is he prepared to recognise as valid the historical affiliations which, according to Voegelin and the scholars to whom he appeals, link in continuity the existentialist with the authentically Gnostic Weltanschauung.

In order to understand the distinct ways Voegelin and Jonas employ the category of gnosticism as a means of identifying, at least by analogy, aspects of modernity it is, as this point, advisable to explicate the biographical and disciplinary differences between the two men, taking first the case of Eric Voegelin. With his background in jurisprudence and political science, and his enduring allegiance to the ethical universe of the Rechtsstaat, Voegelin, during the 1930s, attempted repeatedly to understand the extremist political movements, National Socialism above all, that threatened the existence of constitutional order with a murderous tide of destruction.

Dissatisfied with the category of "Political Religions," as employed in his 1938 book of that title, Voegelin turned, predominantly under the influence of his reading of Hans Urs von Balthasar's 1937 work Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, to an identification of revived gnosticism rather than on the wider notion of political religion as such in order to comprehend the unforgiving violence with which contemporary mass movements attacked as utterly corrupt the shaky remains of a once viable political order rooted in an essentially Christian, Augustinian view of the state. However, as Klaus Vondung observes, in doing this Voegelin's subsumed under the term Gnosticism elements of a no less ancient tradition, that of Apocalypticism - a spiritual phenomenon which like Gnosticism itself first appeared during the period that Voegelin was later to call the Ecumenic Age when ethnically compact nations and the cults of essentially tribal deities found themselves subject to new imperial powers that threatened to extinguish both their political existence and the continuity of the religious practices of their inhabitants. (2)

The spiritual movement of Gnosticism arose in conditions when, in consequence of these unforeseen historical circumstances, existing religious aspirations were radically transformed and transferred from a world that now seemed the realm of uncaring powers, often perceived as demonic. Such hopes thus came to be vested in a newly imagined, more purely spiritual realm, ruled by a world-transcendent deity and therefore free from earthly powers who could by virtue of their mundane ontological status, never penetrate such an immaterial and hence invulnerable sphere of being. As a consequence this led the Gnostics to a no less radical devaluation of the worthiness of earthly existence. This could, in the absence of any enduring sense of virtue embodied in a righteous political community, lead, on an individual basis, either to extreme asceticism or, more rarely, a no less extreme licentiousness but it was scarcely conducive to a programme of effective political response in a world already regarded as beyond redemption.

By contrast, the contemporary movement of Apocalypticism, to which Vondung draws our attention, reacted to the same circumstances by endowing the activism of the remaining faithful with the simultaneously religious and political role of defeating, or at least aiding God in defeating the otherwise overwhelming force of powers perceived as demonic in consequence of the threat they posed to inherited beliefs and practices. Thus, as comparison with Gnosticism shows, Apocalypticism encompassed from its inception at a moment of crisis a revolutionary, political potential that found no place in the world-view of Gnosis. For while the Apocalyptic tradition regarded existence as capable of restoration through the providential alliance of divine will and human action, the Gnostic path rejected the material world as irremediably evil and thus displaced its eschatological hopes onto faith in the redemption of an element of unsullied spirit from what was now seen as a bodily existence rendered intolerable by incarnate power.

Though Voegelin was never entirely to disown the gnostic thesis of modernity in his later works, it ceased to play a central role, especially as his focus of interest shifted from the more combative political writings of the 1940s and 50s, composed under the impact of a hot war against National Socialism, and later the cold war directed at Communist expansion, toward a no less existentially engaged but less polemically formulated attempt to renew the positive sources of political and psychic order through recovery of the experiential roots of classical philosophy. Thus, despite the value of The New Science of Politics and related works, which no reservations regarding the author's use of the category of gnosticism, however well justified, should allow us to forget, I cannot but feel that Voegelin's reputation in the eyes of posterity will rest less on the books by which he is now best known to the academic establishment than on the theory of historically and ontologically embodied consciousness developed in Anamnesis (1966), on the fifth volume of Order and History and on the late essays that form volumes 12 and 28 of the Collected Works which is currently being completed by the University of Missouri Press. Viewed retrospectively, from a perspective informed by these writings, The New Science of Politics, and with it Voegelin's reliance on the suggestive but hermeneutically dubious category of modern gnosticism, appears, to this reader at least, as, at best, a preliminary opening to a deep hermeneutic of order in soul and society that achieved completion in works composed when the pressure of political events had, at least to some extent and perhaps only temporarily, receded as a presently felt and immediate threat to the unforced cultivation of the life of the mind.

Insofar as Eric Voegelin's category of modern gnosticism seeks to establish an historical connection with the original Gnosis of the early common era it tends to continue the habit of the patristic, anti-Gnostic literature, which extends from Ireneaeus's Adversos Haereses of the 2nd Century AD to the 8th Century Dialogus contra Manichaeos of John of Damascus, to treat Gnostic teachings as essentially Christian heresies. This is understandable both in terms of the historical fact that many of the Gnostic teachers, such as Marcion and Valentinus, did in fact regard themselves as Christians - indeed as the only authentic bearers of the message of Christ - and that until the early 20th Century our knowledge of their teachings depended almost entirely on the summaries of their doctrines that form a substantive part of the writings of their orthodox opponents, which were all that seemed to survive from what had originally been a more equally balanced field of theological controversy. In Voegelin's case this tendency to endorse the patristic perspective is furthermore reinforced by a distinctive view of history that both regards modern gnosticism as a falling away from the tensions of authentic Christian faith and by the already noted temptation on his part to include within the category of modern gnosis features that more properly belong to the more exclusively Judaeo-Christian Apocalyptic tradition.

However, in the eyes of most recent students of ancient Gnosticism, including Jonas, this is a perspective rendered untenable by the notable expansion of the range of original Gnostic material that has become available since the late 19th Century discovery of a mass of Manichaean literature, in various old Persian and Turkic languages, from the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan. Among the more notable of these later finds, which have brought to light a multitude of non-Christian Gnostic writings, apart from the already known Poimandres of Hermes Trimegistus and the Mandaean scriptures first introduced to Europe in the 17th Century but only made generally accessible to scholars by their translation into German by M. Libardski less than a hundred years ago, two are of especial importance. These are the library of Coptic Manichaean manuscripts found at Medinet Madi in South West Fayum in Egypt in 1930 and the collection of 13 Papyrus-Codices recovered in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt that seems to form the remainder of the library of a 5th Century Christian Gnostic community. Also written in Coptic, this includes, besides unorthodox Christian works known previously only from their citation by patristic sources, a number of non-Christian texts, notably the tractate known as Zostrianos, which clearly derives from the orbit of Iranian, quasi-Zoroastrian Gnosticism.

The implication of these discoveries, of which Jonas in successive editions of The Gnostic Religion takes full account, is an understanding of Gnosticism that sees it not as an originally Christian heretical movement but, in the words of Robert Haardt, as: "an essentially non-Christian movement occurring in late antiquity, which manifested itself in widely-scattered communities, and under many different guises." (3) In his English language study Jonas invokes Oswald Spengler's idea of "pseudomorphosis" in order to understand the confusing situation in which the student of Gnosis finds himself in the face of a widespread religious and spiritual phenomenon that exists in numerous varieties, some Christian, some not, some cast in apparently philosophical language and others in a more overtly mythological form but all sharing a number of crucial defining features centred around the belief in the essentially evil or alienating character of man's material existence. "Pseudomorphosis" describes the geological process whereby: "if a different crystalline substance happens to fill the hollow left in a geological layer by crystals that have disintegrated, it is forced by the mould to take on a crystal form not its own and which without chemical analysis will mislead the observer into taking it for a crystal of the original kind." (4) By analogy, Gnostic spirituality takes on differing forms depending on its historical context, or cultural space, while never losing its singular, distinctive and identifiable character.

It is this that lets Jonas speak of a single "Gnostic Religion" despite the manifold ways in which it is manifest in the sects and cults of antiquity. And it is for the same reason that the interpreter can, with sufficient hermeneutic sensitivity, identify a shared, essentially mythological core both in overtly mythological and in apparently philosophical or theological texts - a core which may be understood as an intelligible if ultimately fallacious human response to a world perceived as intrinsically disordered and beyond hope of recovery. At least to this extent Jonas's approach resembles that urged by Voegelin in "Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History:" (5) a resemblance all the more striking in that Jonas's distinction between such overtly mythological formulations as those of the Mandaeans and the pseudo-philosophic discourse of a Valentinus can be understood along the Voegelinian axis of the movement, at least at a linguistic level, from the compactness of myth to a more differentiated terminology of "philosophy." The "Mythic Truth" of this paper's title is the authentic Gnostic rendering intelligible of the all too real experience of worldly disorder: the corresponding "Art of Science" is the duty of the interpreter to make this mythic expression intelligible to a contemporary reader.

For purposes of clarifying Jonas's contribution to our understanding of Gnosticism and its relevance to the self-interpretation of modernity let me expand upon the two terms of my title, taking first the phrase "art of science" and then that of "mythic truth." In common parlance both have an element of the paradoxical. 'Science' and 'art' are commonly considered as qualitatively different undertakings, while 'myth' is usually seen as opposed to 'truth.' At least in English, the term 'science' is normally construed in a more narrow sense than the German Wissenschaft, as meaning the practice of the mathematising sciences of nature and as excluding the interpretative or hermeneutic pursuits of human inquiry; but, leaving aside my own conviction that even the most mathematical of formulae in natural science rest upon an initial act of interpretation by the scientist and that consequently even these sciences are, in their foundations, hermeneutic, I wish to make plain that here 'science' is taken to include the discipline of interpreting the phenomena of ancient Gnosis and 'art' as the skill that the interpreter must bring to bear in carrying this out.

Relative to Gnosticism the objects of interpretation are texts composed by adepts and opponents alike; and these are open to interpretation subject to two conditions, one linguistic, the other anthropological. The linguistic condition is met when the interpreter can understand the language in which the text was first composed or into which it has been adequately translated. The anthropological condition is met by virtue of the fact that the authors of these works were beings much like ourselves, inhabiting a world that, for all its historical specificity, we would still recognise as our own. In "Change and Permanence: On the Possibility of Understanding History" Jonas argues that the possibility of interpretation rests on shared possession by the interpreter and his object of a common human horizon founded in certain foundational and enduring features of human nature and response. (6) Adequate interpretation of the other, so construed, depends less on the "knowledge of like by like," in the sense of an exact commonality of experience, than on what Jonas calls: " a shared potential mediated by symbol." It is thus, to use his own examples, that we can understand the grief of an Achilles for his Patroclus, the love of Romeo for Juliet and the response of the fishermen to the call of Jesus on the shores of a distant Palestinian lake. The truth of this view seems obvious enough to me but to those who doubt it I recommend either a reading of Jonas's text or consideration of the problems a teacher would face if compelled to explain the problems of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow to beings who felt neither heat nor cold, who took sustenance directly from the air, and who could fly at will from place to distant place.

What then of 'mythic truth?' Here our problem is a little more complex. The underlying truth to which Gnosticism is a recognisable response is that our world is a puzzling and often painful place. The specificity of the Gnostic response is that the toils of human existence are attributed not, as in orthodox Christianity, to human fault nor, as in the classical world-view to the immutable conditions of mortal as opposed to divine existence. Instead they are seen as a consequence of the world having been made by a flawed or malign Creator in conscious or unconscious rebellion against the ultimate source of spirit, of whom, or of which, a vestige remains in dissatisfied man. Students of Gnostic myth often refer to its dualist character in which an integrally good source of spiritual being is counterposed to an evil creator of the impure world of matter. But this form of theological dualism is only truly radical in the Eastern, Iranian types of Gnosticism, such as the teachings of Mani, which reverse and alter the orthodox Zoroastrian doctrine of dualism, according to which the Cosmos and man are seen in their integrity of body and soul as creatures of the good god Ohrmazd and not of the evil Ahriman who struggles for their domination and destruction. For the Manichaean, by contrast, only the spiritual element in man is seen as the creature of the god of light: his body, and the body of the world, is the creature of the dark. In Manichaean doctrine spirit alone may be redeemed and ultimately is so in an eschatological scheme that Mani himself expounds in astonishingly vivid mythological detail. (7)

Aspects of such theological dualism are also present in more Western forms of Gnosticism, as exemplified in the common hostility, most marked in Marcion, for the Jewish creator God of the Old Testament, and in the Gnostic denigration, condemned by Plotinus, of the divine immortality of the stars. But, according to Jonas, the most pervasive dualism in Gnosis is not theological opposition between two more or less equal divine principles, one good, one evil, but an existential dualism rooted in the Gnostics' feeling of estrangement from a cosmos that, in the beliefs of the classical world, and of the cosmological civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, was regarded as ultimately beneficent and divine. In this existential interpretation of Gnostic dualism one recognises the influence of Jonas's teacher, Martin Heidegger, in whose depiction of Dasein's situation in Being and Time he also noted an unconscious yet unmistakable echo of that sense of alienation from the mundanity of everyday being which also typifies Gnosticism. In this way the ideas of the early Heidegger serve a clear dialectical function in Jonas's research, both providing a key to understanding ancient Gnosis and exemplifying its nearest modern equivalent.

Among students of Gnosticism Hans Jonas stands out not so much in terms of the range of the material he covers but because he approaches it from an identifiably philosophical perspective. This moreover is a perspective formed, as he puts it, "in the school of such teachers as Husserl, Heidegger and Bultmann." (8) Of these it is the last two who are most significant for his studies of Gnosis, Heidegger for the reasons already mentioned, and Bultmann because it was he who introduced Jonas to the field of research into the cultural and spiritual environment associated with the origins of Christianity in which Gnosticism plays a vital part. Under Bultmann's guidance Jonas's first book dealt with the problem of Augustine's ideas on free will in the context of the Pelagian controversy, (9) while his second was the first volume of his study of Gnosticism which, as indicated above, was published in Germany in 1934. It is of some biographical interest that by the time the book was published Jonas had already emigrated from Germany and that the volume by a Jewish author appeared with a preface composed by Rudolf Bultmann. This was an act of considerable courage on Bultmann's part and is one of the many reasons why Jonas always regarded Bultmann with such esteem and respect despite the trenchant criticisms he was later to make of aspects of Bultmann's theology. It goes without saying that Bultmann's behaviour in these matters stands in marked contrast to that of Jonas's other teacher, Heidegger; and it says much for the honesty and liberality of Jonas's intellectual orientation that he never allowed the question of Heidegger's political commitment to National Socialism to stand in the way of his acknowledgement of the debt he owed to Heidegger in forming, if partly by way of reaction, his own distinctive philosophical approach, not least in his interpretation of Gnosticism. (10)

I have already noted that Heidegger's influence on Jonas's approach to Gnosticism has two distinct aspects. On the one hand it sensitised him to the possibility of interpreting ancient Gnosis as a religious and spiritual response to a set of historically formed existential conditions that arose in the early years of the Common Era (AD). On the other, it enabled him to see parallels between this response and features of the intellectual life of his own times: notably aspects of the existentialist approach developed by Heidegger, and the influence this exerted on the minds of his contemporaries, not least his own. (11) Unlike Voegelin, Jonas neither calls Heidegger a 'gnostic' nor seeks to establish any historical continuity between the ancient and the modern phenomena. In Voegelin's terms, the parallel Jonas establishes between the two is instead one of equivalence of experience and symbolization rooted in a certain commonality of human, historical situation.

In view of the complex nature of the issues involved it is worth citing at length Jonas's own explanation of the relationship between his Heideggerian formation and his understanding of Gnosticism: "When ...I turned to the study of Gnosticism, I found that the viewpoints, the optics as it were, which I had acquired in the school of Heidegger, enabled me to see aspects of gnostic thought that had been missed before. And I was increasingly struck by the familiarity of the seemingly utterly strange. In retrospect, I am inclined to believe that it was the thrill of this dimly felt affinity which had lured me into the gnostic labyrinth in the first place. Then, after long sojourn in those distant lands returning to my own, the contemporary philosophical scene I found that what I had learnt out there made me now better understand the shore from which I had set out. The extended dialogue with ancient nihilism proved - at least to me - a help in discerning and placing the meaning of modern nihilism: just as the latter had initially equipped me for spotting its obscures cousin in the past. What had happened was that Existentialism, which had provided the means of an historical analysis, became itself involved in the results of it. The fitness of its categories to the particular matter was something to ponder about. They fitted as if made to measure: were they, perhaps, made to measure? At the outset I had taken that fitness as simply a case of their presumed general validity, which would assure their utility for the interpretation of any human 'existence' whatsoever. But then it dawned on me that the applicability of categories in the given instance might rather be due to the very kind of 'existence' on the other side - that which had provided the categories and that which so well responded to them.....In other words, the hermeneutic functions became reversed and reciprocal - lock turns into key, and key into lock: the 'existentialist' reading of Gnosticism, so well vindicated by its hermeneutic success, invites as its natural complement the trial of a 'gnostic' reading of Existentialism." (12)

These words are crucial both for understanding Jonas's own development and as a guide to his approach to Gnosticism as well as for his attempt to establish its relevance to identifying key aspects of modernity. On the first, it enabled him to see that the categories of Heideggerian existentialism do not describe human existence as such but only one particular type, characterised by a sense of estrangement from the cosmos and a tendency to ethical nihilism. This encouraged Jonas to distance himself from Heidegger and develop another, altogether sounder interpretation of the human condition. On the second it helped him to see that existentialism and Gnosticism were nonetheless equivalent responses to parallel yet historically unique circumstances.

Equivalence, however, is not identity; and Jonas is careful to distinguish between an existentialist philosophy of apparent ontological freedom that, in denying man a determined nature akin to that of other animate beings, seems to leave him at liberty to decide what he is to become and a Gnostic myth that envisages him as enslaved by intra-cosmic powers. Nevertheless the tenor of Jonas's argument is that this distinction is more apparent than real, and that underlying the distinction is a more fundamental affinity rooted in a common feeling of alienation, both ontological and ethical, that separates, in Gnosticism, man's spiritual or pneumatic essence and, in existentialism, his 'authentic' self from the regulatory conditions of the otherwise normative conditions of earthly being. Beneath the apparent contradiction between the Gnostic belief in a transmundane God from whom the spiritual element in man derives but who plays no part in the order of the cosmos, and the existentialist denial of reality to any objective supernatural or natural measure of human conduct, lies a shared sense that, in this world at least, man is utterly alone in determining what he is to be. On the level of theology the deus absconditus of Gnosticism and non-existent god of modern existentialism are effectively as one. On that of anthropology and ethics the denial of intrinsic and objectively given meaning and value to man's place in the cosmos results in what Jonas, following Nietzsche, terms nihilism. But while Nietzsche sees this state of affairs as consequent upon what he calls "the death of God," by which, as Heidegger puts it, he means "that the supra-sensible world is without effective force," (13) Jonas gives it a more extensive and less specifically Christian theological meaning as signifying the rupture of a sense of meaningful and normative relationship between human existence and the order of the cosmos.

In Christian teaching, as in that of Judaism and Islam, the validity of this relationship rests upon belief that, though transcendent, God is nevertheless the creator of the cosmos: the very doctrine that Gnosticism most consistently denies. But though crucial in establishing an opposition between Gnosticism and Christian orthodoxy, faith in divine origins of the world represents an attenuated and thus vulnerable token of consonance between man and cosmos when set against the typical forms of pagan piety, whether embodied in the beliefs of what Voegelin calls the "cosmological civilizations" of Egypt and Mesopotamia or in the Stoic idea of a cosmic logos that both informs universal order and gives objective ethical direction to human conduct. And it this that offers Jonas the theme of one of the most philosophically challenging chapters of The Gnostic Religion when he contrasts the Greek and Gnostic evaluations of the cosmos. (14)

The chapter devoted to the cosmos succeeds Jonas's survey of the general symbolic content of Gnostic myth and his broad though far from exhaustive examination of the teachings of a representative selection of Gnostic sects. This is sufficient, at least for the general reader, to convey both the variety of Gnostic doctrines, their widespread geographical distribution and, at the same time, their essential unity of outlook based upon a shared denigration of the value of mundane existence. In the opening section of his book, Jonas identifies this spiritual movement of human estrangement from the world as an intelligible reaction to an existential crisis brought about by the disorienting destruction of older, more ethnically and religiously homogenous forms of political community by imperial powers; and by an accompanying ferment of ideas in which Western, essentially Greek, beliefs and concepts cross-fertilised in numerous different ways with religious ideas and cults of oriental and Egyptian origin. Of these Gnosticism is only one among many: though one decisively set apart from the rest in consequence of its systematic rejection of the positive valency of worldly being for a residually spiritual creature such as man is taken to be. Between this analysis of the spiritual-political crisis of late antiquity and the Voegelinian notion of an "ecumenic age," readers will note an apparent affinity; even if, in consequence of his focus on Gnosis, the picture that Jonas draws of the situation has a somewhat more negative slant.

In this age Gnosticism as well as such phenomena as the cosmic piety of the Stoics represent cognate if opposed reactions to a common experience of spiritual estrangement from ancestral and locally particular cults, characterised by individual and communal devotion to one's native god and to the tribe or city of which this god was supposed to be the especial patron but to which he, or she, could no longer offer the protection traditionally expected and ascribed. However what makes Gnosticism a uniquely revolutionary phenomenon, not in a political but an ontological sense, is that, alone among potential reactions to this situation, it reacts to the experience of disorientation not by extending in a universalist direction a formerly localised divine principle, whether the Hebrew God or the cosmic deities of Greece and Rome, but by imagining the world as an originally and innately demonic sphere, the creation of a malign demiurge; and then in attributing to authentic divinity an acosmic status with which the spiritual element in man can be reunited only by communication of that esoteric knowledge, Gnosis, which, in this world, releases him from earthly obligations, and, in another, ensures the ultimate salvation of the elect.

It should be noted here that, clear though it seems, this characterisation of Gnosticism does not pass unchallenged among Jonas's fellow students of Gnosis. In a recent book, Rethinking "Gnosticism:" An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, (15) the Washington scholar Michael Allen Williams, a specialist in the study of the Nag Hammadi library, has even argued that the very category of Gnosticism, and with it Jonas's idea that there is such a thing as a "Gnostic Religion," is a hermeneutically misleading notion that induces students to see a unity where historically speaking none existed, while continuing into the world of 20th Century scholarship a negative and essentially polemical reading of a variety of teachings that has its source in the writings of early heresiologists, whose purpose was not dispassionate study of a multiform religious phenomenon but the definition of what came to be accepted as a Christian orthodoxy which, for various reasons, the doctrines of those termed "Gnostic" were seen to challenge. Certainly when The Gnostic Religion first appeared in 1958 the contents of the Nag Hammadi library, on which Williams' case so much depends, were scarcely known; and when, in the second edition of the book, published in 1963, Jonas engages with these writings, in a chapter entitled "The Recent Discoveries in the Field of Gnosticism"(The Gnostic Religion pp.290-319), he provides a reading of the teachings of the newly discovered codices that perhaps exaggerates their overall unity as well as their consistency with the image of Gnosis derived from patristic sources.

Nonetheless, though this is not the place to answer more fully Williams's objections to the category of Gnosticism, which is anyway a task requiring more specialist knowledge than I possess, something should be said in defence of Jonas's use of the term, and thus in furtherance of the case advanced in this paper for its utility as a notion helpful both in identifying an ancient spiritual phenomenon and to highlight certain aspects of modernity, though not necessarily those featured by Voegelin. In the first place, despite Williams' skepticism, the world-view conveyed by the Nag Hammadi writings does express a vision of existence distinct from that of the most revealing comparison, which is not with that of Christian orthodoxy but with the dominant forms of pagan piety at the time of their composition. And second, that important though the Nag Hammadi texts may be, by virtue of their number and their relatively good state of preservation, they represent, with exceptions, the legacy of only one wing of a more general phenomenon of late antiquity of which we find evidence, if in more fragmentary form, in a body of Gnostic literature less indebted to Christian imagery. These are relevant texts to which Williams, perhaps, pays too little attention.

This is of special significance when we recall that if most surviving Gnostic literature, as represented in the Nag Hammadi library, speaks, as it were, the language of Christianity, so also the body of Christian scripture is, in ways identified by Rudolf Bultmann, deeply indebted to the imagery and even the theological imagination of Gnosis. (16) Of course Bultmann does not claim that the two are identical. This would not only be a perspective incompatible with his status as a Christian theologian but is, if only in the last resort, a position unwarranted either by theological evidence or by the historical record. Nevertheless where Bultmann is surely right, and in a way that amply justifies the stress that Jonas places on the opposition of Gnostic acosmism to pagan rather than to orthodox Christian spirituality, is in emphasising that, though ultimately decisive in theological terms, Christian faith in the divine origins of creation, as evidenced in such biblical sayings as "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof," is perhaps all that stands between Gnostic and orthodox teaching on the relationship between man's proper destiny and the order of the cosmos. As Bultmann observes, especially in the New Testament: "There is nothing to suggest the classical view that God is immanent in the world, no suggestion that the orderly, law-abiding process of nature and course of history are proofs of divine immanence. The New Testament knows nothing of the Stoic conception of providence. There is a great gulf between God and the world."...a realm perceived as subject to the domination of "principalities and powers" that are themselves conceived as not merely separated from but even radically opposed to divine will. (17) In his pages on "Redemption," Bultmann also points to affinities between Gnostic and orthodox doctrine both with regard to man's state of estrangement from the order of this world and the dependence of his ultimate and preeminently desirable salvation from this state on the intervention of a figure, Jesus Christ, who is, in his effective nature though not in the material form of his incarnation, sent into this world from one beyond.

Further discussion of the theological intricacies involved here would transcend the scope of this paper; for what is important at present is only to clarify why Jonas, who writes not as a theologian but as a philosopher of existence, albeit one with a view distinct from that of Heidegger, should stress the historic import of what, without exaggeration, we may call the Gnostic revolution against the form of piety that prevailed, almost without exception, throughout the ancient world. In its most transparent form the central symbol of this piety is the Greek idea of the cosmos as a realm of innate order and the only worthy, or possible, homeland of mankind. And, like Gnosis itself, it is relevant that the most articulate form of this myth of cosmic beneficence arises only in late antiquity.

This last point throws light on what may seem an apparent oddity in Jonas's presentation of of what he understands as the essentially Greek idea of the cosmos and man's place within it. Namely that while the idea is described as Greek the exemplary figure whom Jonas chooses to present it is a Roman, Cicero. Indeed, the most extended citations of what Jonas terms "cosmos piety" are drawn from the latter's work On the Nature of the Gods, in a series of passages that culminate in Cicero's declaration that: "Man...was born to contemplate the cosmos and to imitate it; he is far from being perfect, but he is a little part of perfection." (18) This "concluding statement," Jonas observes, "about the purpose of human existence in the scheme of things is of profoundest significance. It establishes the connection between cosmology and ethics, between the apotheosis of the universe and the ideal of human perfection: man's task is the theoretical one of contemplating and the practical one of 'imitating' the universe, the latter being explained in a fuller statement as 'imitating the order of the heavens in the manner and constancy of one's life.'" Behind Cicero's Latin words lies a whole Greek tradition of veneration for the cosmos, a term that originally meant "'order' in general, whether of the world or a household, of a commonwealth or a life." Cosmos is a term that: "By a long tradition... had to the Greek mind become invested with the highest religious dignity. The very word by its literal meaning expresses a positive evaluation of the object - any object - to which it is accorded as a general term...Thus when applied to the universe and becoming assigned to it as to its eminent instance, the word does not merely signify the neutral fact of all-that-is (as the term 'the All' does), but expresses a specific and to the Greek mind an ennobling of this whole: that it is order." (19)

Jonas calls what he terms the "Cosmos Piety" of late antiquity a "position of retreat." It arises, like the alienation of the Gnostics, in an historical situation in which man feels himself no longer able to influence the course of events, as once he had in his tribe or city. The special quality of the cosmic piety of a Cicero, and what links it dialectically with the cosmic estrangement of the Gnostic, is its strangely de-politicised character. The ennobling cosmos of the Stoic and the enslaving cosmos of the Gnostic share this feature: that they signify a preeminent whole to which man belongs but which he can neither alter nor inform. Once the rise of world empires diminishes the individual's role in the conduct of local cult and culture, impersonal fate is experienced, with ever greater impact, as the defining reality of life. And while Stoicism embraces this fate as providence, Gnosticism condemns it as enslavement. In myths alternate yet akin, the cosmos remains alone as supreme token of a world-immanent, implacable order that is in the one to be celebrated and in the other escaped.

Students of historic Christianity will observe how, in its teaching, the Church was able to fuse aspects of both these myths in a synthesis that combined elements of Stoic providentialism with a belief, related though not ontologically identical to that of the Gnosis, that ultimate human salvation is only attained in a spiritual realm beyond this world. That however is not the theme of this paper, which is the relevance of Gnosticism to what my title calls "the unease of modernity." And here, I propose, it is Jonas rather than Voegelin who has most to offer our understanding: especially in an environment threatened less by revolutionary political movements, whose historic affiliations with Gnosis are anyway open to question, and more by recurrent symptoms of imbalance between the powers at man's disposal and the integrity of the world, the humanly relevant cosmos, on which he continues to depend. Certainly it is this that provides the overall theme that guides Jonas's work, from his initial studies of Gnosticism, through his work on philosophical biology and anthropology in The Phenomenon of Life (1963), to his attempt to formulate an ethic suitable for a quantitatively unprecedented technological age in The Imperative of Responsibility (1984) - and even beyond, into such late, theological essays as "Matter, Mind, and Creation" (1988), where Jonas develops a scientifically informed yet avowedly speculative approach to cosmology that, albeit in a rather different context, he is not afraid to describe as "a tentative myth I would like to believe 'true.'" (20)

For a more complete justification of this interpretation of the underlying unity or "integrity"of Jonas's work I refer the reader to my book Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking. (21) Here our theme is necessarily more narrow in focussing on the exemplary significance of Gnosis as an historically primordial and unprecedented form of expression of that sense of radical estrangement between human aspiration and natural order which arguably also underlies the seemingly very different view of man's place in a world now seen as both independent of the marks of divine creation and devoid of inherent value except as a field for presently satisfying exploitation. There is of course a clear distinction between the Gnostic myth of the cosmos as inherently demonic and the modern scientific view that regards it as simply "value free." But this distinction, significant though it may be, should not be allowed to obscure a more existentially fundamental reality of human experience that links across the centuries what Jonas, in 1952, characterised as ancient and modern forms of "nihilism:" a designation that, in later writings, he seeks to justify both by indicating the essential emptiness of an ethics without ontological foundation and in demonstrating the potential compatibility between a modern, scientifically informed ontology and an objective order of ethical commitment. (22)

In a recent discussion of his work, Richard Wolin has attributed Jonas's attempt to bridge the gulf between ontology and ethics - the philosophically notorious logical if metaphysically self-defeating chasm between the 'is' and the 'ought' - to what he calls: "The subterranean affinities of Jonas's position with the 'German Ideology' in its vitalist phase:" an association that Wolin finds disturbing if only because of the historical links between this life-philosophy with the irrationalist philosophies associated with National Socialism. (23) But though there is undoubtedly a biographically rooted affinity to be found between the two - Jonas was, after all, a child of his time - Wolin's accusation, for such it is, misses the more important distinction between a philosophy, such as vitalism, that encompasses all existence in the blind force of a principle of life impermeable because alien to reason and an interpretation of animate being which, like that of Jonas, endeavours to discern the roots of reason in the inherent dynamic and structural imperatives of the phenomenon of life. (24) Whatever may be the immediate biographical origins of this philosophy, its intellectual resemblance is less with the tradition of German vitalism than with the teachings of Aristotle, for whom reason provides a universal principle of interpretation because it is perceived as inherent in the workings of nature as well as in the imagination of man.

It is, of course, hard to resist the conclusion that, at least from a modern natural scientific perspective, there is an undeniably mythic component in this understanding of natural processes: and certainly it is very far from the image of nature conveyed by the mainstream of contemporary research in the sciences of life and matter. But not only may such a myth be practically true, in that it reestablishes a meaningful and anthropologically sustaining link between human reason and cosmic happenstance that ancient Gnosticism was the first belief system comprehensively to deny, but, on a more theoretical and coldly scientific level, we may even speculate, legitimately if not conclusively, that the imperative of survival, which underlies evolution, and is in man alone raised to the level of a rational articulation of future prospects, guarantees, if only because it requires, a substantive measure of agreement between the principle of reason and the phenomenon of life. However, at this plane of abstraction, which may only attain a more concrete and scientifically informative content through further research conducted along avenues suggested by Jonas's philosophy of life, the line between mythic truth and the art of science begins uncomfortably to blur: and with the onset of such shadows my own considerations must draw, not before time, to their own inevitably tentative but hopefully temporary conclusion.


1. 1. Eric Voegelin: The Collected Works, Vol. 5, edited with an introduction by Manfred Henningson, University of Missouri Press, 2000.

2. 2. Klaus Vondung: "Eric Voegelin, the Crisis of Western Civilization, and the Apocalypse" in International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eric Voegelin, edited by Stephen A. McKnight and Geoffrey L. Price, University of Missouri Press 1997.

3. 3. Robert Haardt: Gnosis: Character and Testimony, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1971, p.1

4. 4. Hans Jonas: The Gnostic Religion, Beacon Press, Boston, 1958, pp.36-7

5. 5. Voegelin: Collected Works, Vol.12. pp.115-113

6. 6. Jonas: Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man, University of Chicago Press, 1974, 237-260

7. 7. See David J. Levy "'The Religion of Light': On Mani and Manichaeism" and, for contrast "'The Good Religion:' Reflections on the History and Fate of Zoroastrianism" in Levy: The Measure of Man: Incursions in Philosophical and Political Anthropology, University of Missouri Press, 1993, pp.170-206

8. 8. Jonas : Philosophical Essays, 1974, p.xi

9. 9. Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1930

10. 10. On these matters see David J. Levy: Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking, University of Misssouri Press, 2002, and Richard Wolin: Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp.101-133

11. 11. In a footnote to "Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism" Jonas says: "I am speaking here throughout of Sein und Zeit, not of the later Heidegger, who is certainly no 'Existentialist'." In another essay "Heidegger and Theology," that appears in The Phenomenon of Life, Chicago 1966, pp.235-261, Jonas discusses what he regards as the generally nefarious influence that Heidegger's later writings have had on certain Christian theologians. This essay is a tour de force that combines information and polemic with a skill that is characteristic of Jonas's best work. It is worth reading even by those who have no special interest in its overt topic, but it is not particularly relevant to Jonas's attempt to draw parallels between what he seesas the nihilism of Gnosticism and that of Heideggerian existentialism.

12. 12. Jonas: The Gnostic Religion, pp.320-321

13. 13. Martin Heidegger: Holzwege, p. 200, cited by Jonas in The Gnostic Religion, p.332

14. 14. Jonas: op.cit. pp. 241- 265

15. Michael Allen Williams: op.cit. Princeton University Press, 1996

16. 16. See Rudolf Bultmann: Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, translated by Reginald H. Fuller, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1956, especially the final two chapters of the work devoted respectively to early Christianity's image of "The Situation of Man in the World" and its concept of redemption. Bultmann: op.cit. pp. 189-208.

17. 17. Bultmann: op.cit. p.190 ff.

18. 18. Cicero: De Natura Deorum II p.14 in the translation of H.M. Poteat, University of Chicago Press, 1950.

19. 19. Jonas: The Gnostic Religion, p.241

20. 20. "Matter, Mind, and Creation" may be found in the anthology Mortality and Morality, edited by Lawrence Vogel, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1996, pp.165-197. The phrase "the tentative myth I would like to believe 'true'" appears in his hardly less remarkable essay "Immortality and the Modern Temper" in The Phenomenon of Life, p.278, where it refers to "a truth which of necessity is unknowable and even, in direct concepts, ineffable, yet which, by intimations in our deepest experience, lays claim upon our powers of giving an indirect account of it in revocable, anthropomorphic images." Though applied in this context to the issue of immortality, this notion of myth, akin to the idea of a "true myth" adumbrated by Plato, is arguably no less applicable to the cosmological speculation of "Matter, Mind, and Creation," in whose overall view one can identify echos of the Stoic myth of a logos that informs both the structure of the cosmos and the existentially proper form of human conduct.

21. 21. University of Missouri Press, 2002

22. 22. For a brief statement of Jonas's position on this issue see his essay "Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future" in Mortality and Morality, pp.99-112.

23. 23. Richard Wolin: Heidegger's Children, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp124-5

24. 24. This is the notion that underlies Jonas's suggestive and as yet under-exploited effort to discern the ontological roots of human reason, both theoretical and practical, and of freedom in the process of metabolism that distinguishes


Myth, Aberrant Myth, and Ambient Vision

Copyright 2002 Glenn Hughes


The purpose of this paper is to present elements of Eric Voegelin’s treatment of myth in order to examine his constant insistence on its importance to healthy human living. In its course I will address the difference between myth in the proper or normative sense and what I will describe as aberrant or misleading myth; and will also develop the idea that proper myths provide us with necessary visions of the process of the whole of reality, or "ambient visions" as I call them, that as humans we require in order to successfully orient ourselves in the In-Between of immanence and transcendence. Finally, I will briefly bring these ideas to bear on the philosopher Hans Jonas’s approach to myth as expressed in two of his essays from the nineteen-sixties.

We can usefully begin a look at Voegelin’s treatment of myth by considering the impact of the explicit discovery of divine transcendence on what is, according to Voegelin, the permanent human need for mythic symbolization of the divine mystery and our relationship to it. Prior to the spiritual outbursts that focused attention on the radical transcendence of the divine ground, it was cosmological myths that successfully carried the burden of ultimate meaning. However, once rigorous notions of divine transcendence had emerged and spread, the cosmological myths—such as those of ancient Sumeria and Egypt, or of pre-classical Greece—ceased to be convincing explanations of the structure of reality as a whole. The essence of divinity became a transcendent principle or God. This released the finite world from its close identification with divine essence or divine immediacy, and made possible its analysis as an autonomous field of intelligible objects and relations—it became "nature" or "the physical universe," eventually examined and explained by the various natural sciences. This conceptual autonomy of the physical universe, which to our outlooks is second nature, does not however reflect an ontological autonomy. The finite universe is not, through the discovery of divine transcendence, sundered from its divine ground. Rather, the finite universe has taken on the status and value of being the manifest aspect of the one cosmic reality—the showing-forth, in the dimensions of space and time, of a reality whose essence is divine transcendence. The finite universe has become, in the words of Eugene Webb, "a sacramental sign speaking analogically of the infinite Being that is its ground."

Now, because the natural universe is rooted in a mystery of divine transcendence, and because it bespeaks the mystery of transcendence, the human need for myth does not simply vanish once the older, cosmological myths have ceased to be convincing accounts of the whole of reality. Myth, as Voegelin points out, remains the "adequate and exact [symbolic] instrument of expression" for our understanding of the process of reality as a whole. Why is this so? First, because the suggestive ambiguity of mythic symbols convey simultaneously our insights into transcendent meaning and our awareness of the incompleteness of human knowledge regarding its mystery. Second, because the yearning, love, and awe expressed in and evoked by the emotion-laden imagery of myth brings us psychologically closer to the divine mystery than can any conceptual knowing. And third, because in the form of cosmic, or encompassing, myth—as for example in Plato’s great myths or in the divina commedia of Christian faith—it tells an overarching story that makes sense of our deepest intimations and longings by affirming that all human lives are elements in one cosmic and divine drama.

After the clarification of transcendence, of course, myth can no longer be embraced as the most direct expression of divine ultimacy. Abstract terms denoting the radical transcendence of the divine ground—such as the "being beyond being" of Plato’s Republic, or the mystical notion of the Urgrund, or the Buddhist nirvana, or the Chinese Tao, or Voegelin’s symbol of the "Beyond"—take its place. But myth remains the elementary and necessary language for relating human and worldly meaning to divinely transcendent meaning. Myths compatible with the truths of transcendence remain needed as "relay stations," as Voegelin puts it, "on the way to the . . . differentiated absolute ground." As humans, as embodied creatures who are aware of participating in transcendent being, as seekers who live in the in-between of immanence and transcendence, we require the stories and symbols of myth to satisfy our basic need to have the divine meanings of things expressed in terms both imaginable and mysterious, in a manner that promotes what Voegelin calls balanced consciousness, wherein we honor and attend to the sacred character of the world while at the same time honoring divine transcendence.

Myths available to us that promote the balance of consciousness come in many forms. To begin with, there are of course the grand myths of the major religious and wisdom traditions, which focus on the divine Beyond and offer to orient us within the process of reality as a whole by giving imaginal and narrative form to the invisible mysteries of original creation, divine intent, and transcendent destiny.

In addition to these grand myths of the Beyond, however, we also require symbolic evocations of divine presence in the natural world, of divine immanence. Without these evocations, we run the risk of experiencing the world as drained of divine significance, as profane, or as merely mechanical. This is why Voegelin makes the slightly startling assertion that, even after the discovery of divine transcendence, the "intracosmic gods"—the divine presences of nature, place, and sensitive spontaneity—"are not expendable." In healthy living, he argues, experiences of sacred presence corresponding to ancient experiences of the intracosmic gods remain, existing in a wide variety of post-cosmological epiphany. Sometimes it is natural phenomena—animals, landscape, light, sea, sky—that elicit experiences of sacred presence, as they resonate with and suggest a value and beauty more profound and enduring than the world. We associate certain writers and artists with such experiences; one thinks of Wordsworth, Blake, Turner, and Friedrich. Sometimes myths, tales, and images inherited from cosmological, or borrowed from tribal, cultures serve to evoke a sense of the sacred in nature and in everyday life. Artists attesting to such experiences would include Joyce, Pound, Picasso, and Brancusi. Sometimes works of art themselves perform this service—it being the principal purpose of the artist, as W. H. Auden has remarked with regard to poets, "to preserve and express by art what primitive peoples knew instinctively, namely, that, for [human beings], nature is a realm of sacramental analogies," so that through art divine presence in the world is mediated and thus recollected. Then there are artifacts such as Buddhist stupas, venerated icons, holy shrines. In all of these cases there is functioning an experience of "myth," however rudimentarily: that is, finite objects are expressing or communicating, in a satisfyingly concrete manner, experiences in which places and things, sights and sounds and actions, are transfigured with a sense of transcendent significance and radiate a sense of transcendent purpose.

The reason that Voegelin emphasizes that this intracosmic mythic element in human living, this apprehension of divine presence in worldly things, is a crucial element in healthy human living, is because, without it, the sense of divine transcendence itself becomes lost. Divine transcendent being is not of the world; but it is only encountered by human beings who long for and discover it as the fullness of meaning implied and signified by the things of the world. It is only in and through the things of the world that we approach the divine being that transcends the world. Experiences of the sacramental character of certain places, things and persons are requisite, therefore, for keeping alive a conscious and balanced relationship to divine transcendence. Acknowledgement of this fact appears in what Voegelin calls the "psychological tact" shown by the Catholic Church in providing "Christian versions of holy places, miracle-working images, and rituals, and . . . a host of saints to substitute for the gods." Awareness of it also lies behind much of the energetic upsurge of literary and scholarly interest in myth throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The work of scholars such as Frazer and Eliade, the appreciation of myth by Jung and his followers, the literary creations of writers such as Joyce and Mann—all of these constitute a healthy recognition that a consciousness of transcendent divine mystery can only be nurtured through the mythic evocation of divine presence in the world.

Now, because of the permanent human need for myth, both as mythic evocations of immanent divine presence and as myths of the divine Beyond, there is a permanent human danger of what I shall call psychomythic aberration.

I will suggest that there are two basic types of psychomythic aberration. First, there is the absorption of wayward myths concerning sacred or divine reality. These include myths that offer misleading imagery concerning the divine essence, and misleading suggestions regarding human attunement to the divine; myths that obfuscate or distort, rather than clarify, the relation between immanent and transcendent being; myths that weigh down the psyche with superstitious, occult, coercive, or self-aggrandizing elements; and myths that deny the specifically transcendent dimension of divine meaning and identify the sacred purely with nature, as in certain modes of contemporary neopaganism. All of these are in some sense aberrant and lead consciousness astray, but still their status as myth is unambiguous insofar as their overt purpose is to acknowledge and mediate to human beings divine reality and divine presence.

But a second, less obvious type of psychomythic aberration occurs when sacred or divine reality is rejected as an illusion, or is ignored, while all the time the human need for myth, exerting itself as strongly as ever, finds substitutes for the divine, fashioning stories about the process of reality as a whole that, while mythic in structure, present themselves as nonmysterious historical fact, or political fact, or scientific fact. Voegelin has analyzed this type of aberration in great detail as it pertains to modern political movements and philosophies, and his general theme here is easily summarized as follows.

When the notion of divine reality itself becomes suspect due to the failure of symbols, institutional or otherwise, to mediate its truth, or, more profoundly, when divine reality is eclipsed through the impact of secular immanentist or materialist ideologies, the human search for an ultimate ground of meaning does not cease. Rather it finds some feature of immanent reality—a material good, a power within nature, a future historical state, a political leader, a nation—and invests it with the value of the infinite. If the true divine is eclipsed or rejected, some parts of finite being will be inflated to the status of gods. Our given human awareness of the necessary and perfect ground of being will project these qualities onto something or someone contingent and imperfect—perhaps a Hitler or a Mao. If we lose sight of genuine sacred reality, the world of objects, human constructions, and human heroes will always draw toward itself the supercharge of infinite value that our longing for the true ground always provides. This process has been famously analyzed by St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich, among others. With this form of psychomythic aberration, the outcome is that proper myths—which function as symbolic expressions guiding and orienting one in relation to the mysterious depths of transcendent meaning—are replaced by disguised myths, stories about reality as a whole that contract our native fascination with divine mystery into service of some worldly apotheosis—of national triumph, for example, or civilizational progress, or scientific omnicompetence. Since guiding myths of some kind remain a permanent human need—since by nature we are related to, and long for, the mysterium fascinans et tremendum of transcendent meaning—the immanentist or materialist eclipse of divine mystery on a wide social scale only ensures the cultural dominance of this sort of aberrant myth.

An important consequence ensues from such cultural dominance. When the stories and images belonging to the traditions of the world religions, and when nature and art, fail in their proper mythic function due to the eclipse of divine mystery, and when secular and disguised forms of aberrant myth gain sway over the cultural imagination, there follows a loss of critical control with regard to the meaning of experiences of sacred power and presence. The experiences themselves do not disappear; divine presence always exerts its influence. But in a landscape where divine mystery has been occluded, where the relation of worldly things to their transcendent ground has been lost to critical awareness, there will inevitably be a failure of critical assessment in the interpretation of experiences of worldly enchantment, of fascination arising from the aura of absoluteness and necessity evoked by something (or someone) contingent. The interpretive tools fall into disuse that would distinguish the false from the true matter of inspiration, the genuinely and profoundly spiritual from the magically exotic or the charmingly occult or the demonically intoxicating. So—whether the phenomena under consideration are the cults of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, or more benign discharges such as an obsession with UFOs or the deification of movie or pop music stars—a naively immanentist or materialist landscape is invariably a field of spiritual disorientation and false adoration, where the human longing for the divine ground is misdirected and misapplied.

The safeguard against, and remedy for, psychomythic aberration is of course the ordering of the psyche through proper myths, mythic images and tales that appropriately and truthfully orient us in relation to our world’s rootedness in divinely transcendent meaning. This is mythic imagery that promotes and sustains what Voegelin calls balanced consciousness, consciousness informed by the truth that the finite universe and the divine Beyond are, while meaningfully distinct, still one reality, and that full openness to the whole of reality must therefore remain faithful both to (1) divine formative presence throughout the worldly order and to (2) the divine transcendence disclosed to human consciousness. Appropriate mythic imagery may be found of course in the grand, complex narratives of the great religious traditions, but also in the briefest parable, or poem, or in a painting, or a film—anything that provides a glimpse or image of the structure of reality that helps us stay properly balanced in our difficult situation in between immanence and transcendence. Such glimpses or images or reality I will call, following a hint of Voegelin’s, "ambient visions."

The basic criteria for ambient visions of cosmic participation that reflect balanced consciousness are readily identified. First, such visions will affirm and elicit fidelity toward the divine mystery that surpasses human understanding and is the alpha and omega of reality. Second, they will indicate the value of the world as a sacramental analogy, as a bodying-forth of divine goodness and purpose, thus promoting love of the world while acknowledging it to be rooted in transcendent meaning. Third, they will evoke awareness of the drama of universal humanity, of the fact that the meanings of the lives of all peoples of all times and places are united in one supervening story by virtue of their participation in the one flux of divine presence, in the divine fulfilment of meaning that transcends the conditions of space and time. This awareness of the drama of universal humanity, incidentally, carries with it, at least implicitly, an awareness that human-divine encounter is the essence of human existence, and that therefore a plurality of authentic ambient visions, arising from a plurality of culturally and personally distinct revelatory insights, will have arisen and will continue to arise in history. And finally, fourthly, such visions at their most sophisticated will entail symbolic recognition that history is an open-ended process in which finite and perishable being participates through human consciousness in the imperishable being of the divine ground. Visions meeting all four of these criteria will not only foster a balanced awareness of immanent and transcendent being, but will also encourage a properly universalistic and pluralistic conception of humanity and history.

Examples of ambient vision meeting some or all of these criteria can be found throughout the religious, philosophical, literary, and artistic heritages of post-cosmological Eastern and Western cultures. For instance, in the Isha Upanishad of Hindu scripture (8th-7th centuries BCE), we find the following verses (12-14):

In dark night live those for whom the Lord

Is transcendent only; in night darker still

For whom he is immanent only.

But those for whom he is transcendent

And immanent cross the sea of death

With the immanent and enter into

Immortality with the transcendent.

So we have heard from the wise.

The emphasis here is on the importance of recognizing both divine formative presence in the world and the ultimate transcendence of the Godhead, without letting either fact reduce the other to insignificance; and also on the importance of realizing that human attunement with eternal divine truth—Aristotle’s process of "immortalizing as much as possible" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b31-35)—can only be achieved through this dual recognition and dual fidelity. Like many passages in the Upanishads, the pedagogical aim is to orient us amid the conceptual and existential difficulties introduced by the sharp explicitation of divine transcendence, and especially to remind us that the world of manifest forms, including preeminently our own consciousnesses, is in its deepest identity one essence with the divine ground.

A complementary vision, but one that emphasizes the moral dimension of our participation in transcendent being, is found in Plato’s Gorgias, arising from the argument between Socrates and Callicles about whether it is preferable to commit or to suffer injustice. The argument raises a question unavoidable in any serious analysis of moral experience: does human consciousness truly participate in eternal being, and is there consequently, in some mystery beyond our knowing, a moral resolution to the human drama? Is it reasonable to believe that, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice"? Plato addresses the question by concluding the Gorgias with Socrates telling a tale about judgment after death—"a very fine tale," Socrates states, which his listeners may consider "fiction," but which he intends to recount as if it were "actual truth" (523a).

The tale of judgment is an event of imaginative vision that provides a overarching context for the human struggle to understand how to act. With its vivid details, it persuades us "that we should be more on our guard against doing than suffering wrong," and encourages us "to live and die in the pursuit of righteousness and all other virtues." Socrates concludes his account, and the dialogue, by urging his listeners to take the story to heart (523a-527e). Plato clearly wishes us to do the same, not as a statement of known facts, but as a story that points toward an ultimate truth. As a vision that brings the question of justice to imaginative completion, the myth of judgment testifies to Plato’s confidence that the known facts of human moral struggle in this world suggest a meaningful resolution, but testifies at the same time to his recognition that such a resolution is a mystery beyond worldly and historical experience.

Fifteen hundred years after Plato, in the teachings of the great Sufi mystic and poet Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), a vision of cosmic justice grounded in transcendence is articulated in terms of divine love, with the finite universe presented as a hierarchy of being that in its totality is an incarnation of God’s love:

It’s waves of love that make the heaven turn

Without that love the universe would freeze:

no mineral absorbed by vegetable

no growing thing consumed by animal

no sacrifice of anima for Him

Who inspired Mary with His pregnant breath

Like ice, all of them unmoved, frozen stiff

No vibrant molecules in swarms of motion

Lovers of perfection, every atom

turns sapling-like to face the sun and grow

Their haste to shed their fleshly form for soul

sings out an orison of praise to God (Masnavi V: 3853-59)

And Rumi adds to his vision an explicit pluralism that sees human beings of all religions in all cultures as authentic partners in the unfolding drama of human-divine encounter. The search for the divine ground of existence is universal, deriving from God’s universal love, which, as it expresses itself in the cultural particulars of language, creed, and ritual, unites those particulars as it transcends them. God urges us, in Rumi’s verses, to recognize that all worshippers respond to the same flux of divine presence:

I have given everyone a character

I have given each a terminology (Masnavi II: 1754)

Hindus praise me in the terms of India

and the Sindis praise in terms from Sind

I am not made pure by their magnificats

It is they who become pure and precious

We do not look to language or to words

We look inside to find intent and rapture (Masnavi II: 1757-59)

Every prophet, every saint has his path

but as they return to God, all are one (Masnavi I: 3086)

Love’s folk live beyond religious borders

The community and creed of lovers: God (Masnavi II: 1770)

Here we find a vision of the finite world, divine transcendence, and the drama of humanity that fulfills the first three of our criteria, while hinting that history is essentially a transfigurative process involving the transformation of finite being, through the medium of human knowing and loving, into conscious participation in transcendent being.

Finally, we may consider the vision of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936-42), a sequence of four poems constituting a Christian meditation on existence, time, death, and tradition. As with Rumi, and true to Christian teaching, the ground of reality is affirmed to be transcendent divine love, itself beyond time and desiring, but which suffers manifestation as desire in the divinely-caused movement of creaturely longing and love:

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless, and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being. (Burnt Norton, 163-68)

Human consciousness, where finite reality participates knowingly in transcendent freedom and love, is the place where immanent being is directly permeable by divine action—where creatureliness can know and conform to divine presence in consciousness, as Jesus is understood to have actualized in fullness, although most of us barely comprehend his, or our, condition:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Here the impossible union

Of spheres of existence is actual,

Here the past and future

Are conquered, and reconciled . . . (The Dry Salvages, 215-19)

To radically transform oneself in attunement with the hint and gift of Incarnation, to embody in one’s life the vision of transcendence, belongs only to spiritual genius:

Men’s curiosity searches past and future

And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint . . . (The Dry Salvages, 199-203)

And saints are rare. But still, every human consciousness has its moments of apprehension, its intimations of the depths, when the timeless perfection of meaning that grounds the universe is glimpsed—moments of personal vision which, if remembered, can inform and inspire our everyday lives:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action (The Dry Salvages, 207-214)


As with the previous examples, the ambient vision of Four Quartets reminds us that, in Voegelin’s words, "[t]he divine reality that reveals its presence in the meditative act is both within Being as its creative core and outside of Being in some Beyond of it," and it urges us universally to be faithful to our roles as loving mediators between world and divine ground.

There remains to mention very briefly a few elements in the writings of Hans Jonas that bear on the compatibility of his approach to myth with that of Voegelin. I will base my remarks on two of Jonas’s essays: "Immortality and the Modern Temper" (1962) and "Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism" (1962).

First, as does Voegelin, Jonas recognizes human beings as agents situated "in between" time and eternity, at once transiently finite and open to transcendence, and aware of an obligation both to the world and to the transcendent ground of being. He is particularly eloquent on how this dual obligation is brought to clarity in moments of decision wherein we commit ourselves to significant deeds:

On the threshold of deed holding time in suspense, but not a respite from time, [the moment of decision] exposes our being to the timeless and with the turn of decision speeds us into action and time. Swiftly reclaimed by the movement it actuates, it marks man’s openness to transcendence in the very act of committing him to the transience of situation, and in this double exposure, which compounds the nature of total concern, the "moment" places the responsible agent between time and eternity. From this place-between springs ever new the chance of new beginning, which ever means the plunge into the here and now.

Second, as finite creatures in whom divine transcendence comes to self-presence, Jonas argues that "we must entrust ourselves" to the medium of myth, since our awareness of participation in divine transcendence obliges us to explore, however tentatively, the deepest meanings of existence. "Myth," he writes,

may happen to adumbrate a truth which of necessity is unknowable and even, in direct concepts, ineffable, yet which, by intimations to our deepest experiences, lays claim upon our powers of giving indirect account of it in revocable, anthropomorphic images.

He notes that it is of utmost importance, however, that we remain conscious of "the experimental and provisional nature" of myth and not confuse it with nor present it as "doctrine."

Third, Jonas too underscores the importance of what Voegelin calls "visions of the divine ambience," visions of the whole of reality that ground ultimate values and concerns in eternal being. Recent philosophy, Jonas writes—he cites Nietzsche and Heidegger—has "ousted" eternity in favor of radical temporality; has reduced values to purely subjective projections; and thus has replaced "vision" with mere "will." This philosophical loss of the eternal, he argues, which is also "the absolute victory of nominalism over realism," commits existence to a drama without a grounding in eternal meaning and thus without real dignity; existence becomes no more than "a project from nothingness into nothingness." Only through the philosophical acceptance and socially effective force of visions of reality that, as he puts it, behold the "transcendence of immutable being shining through the transparency of becoming," can we escape, philosophically and existentially, the radical temporalism and subjectivism that lie at the root of modern nihilism and so maintain a healthy orientation as participants in both immanent and transcendent being.

Finally, we have Jonas’s presentation, in his "Immortality" essay, of what he describes as his own "tentative myth" of divine being, cosmos, and human existence. I will not rehearse its elements except to note that Jonas has shaped it in conscious responsibility to (1) a basically Jewish theology of divine creation, (2) the discoveries of the modern natural sciences, including evolutionary theory, and (3) the theological dilemmas posed by the barbarities of the twentieth century and especially the Holocaust. The myth of the divine that reason demands in response to these elements together, Jonas indicates, must deviate in a few important respects from that of traditional Jewish or Christian faith: for Jonas, the scientific and historical facts, and especially the facts of human evil and measureless suffering, demand the abandonment of the doctrines of divine omnipotence and divine omniscience. Jonas presents the core of his myth in these sentences:

[I]n order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced his own being, divesting himself of his deity—to receive it back from the Odyssey of time weighted with the chance harvest of unforeseeable temporal experience: transfigured or possibly even disfigured by it. In such self-forfeiture of divine integrity for the sake of unprejudiced becoming, no other foreknowledge can be admitted than that of possibilities which cosmic being offers in its own terms: to these, God committed his cause in effacing himself for the world.

Jonas explains that what this means, finally, is that the deity, in some unimaginable and yet very real and terrible sense, is dependent on human action in history for its very destiny, for what Jonas calls the "reconstitution" of its own eternal being. It means that the actions of human lives, as Jonas puts it, "become lines in the divine countenance."

Of this perhaps unfairly brief adumbration of Jonas’s "tentative myth," I would make only the following observations.

First, Jonas’s myth does satisfy my own four basic criteria for ambient visions that reflect balanced consciousness: it affirms the divine mystery; it promotes love of this world as a bodying-forth of divine goodness and purpose; it evokes awareness of the drama of universal humanity; and it recognizes history as an open-ended process in which finite being consciously participates through human existence in the eternal being of the divine ground. Also, in a manner reminiscent of Voegelin, it emphasizes that human existence is the site of the conscious interpenetration of the human and divine—to the point, however, of asserting a divinely-initiated ontological dependence of the divine on the human, which, I believe, diverges significantly from Voegelin’s understanding of the human-divine In-Between.

I would describe this difference between the two philosophers as involving, in essence, a readiness or need on Jonas’s part to envision, in the original creation, a self-limiting on the deity’s part that compromises the freedom of divine transcendence to the point that Jonas’s vision is difficult to distinguish from pantheism. Jonas begins his "tentative myth" by writing:

In the beginning, for unknowable reasons, the ground of being, or the Divine, chose to give itself over to the chance and risk and endless variety of becoming. And wholly so: entering into the adventure of space and time, the deity held back nothing of itself: no uncommitted or unimpaired part remained to direct, correct, and ultimately guarantee the devious working-out of its destiny in creation. On this unconditional immanence the modern temper insists.

Two sentences later, Jonas denies that his myth presents a vision of "pantheistic immanence." But I have difficulty finding this denial completely convincing. It seems to me that, in the end, Jonas is attempting to affirm both that the essence of the divine being transcends its creation and that, at the same time, in Lawrence Vogel’s words, "God’s very existence depends on humanity’s execution of its cosmic responsibility." It is unclear to me whether, within the logic of myth, these simultaneous affirmations finally make sense.

But what is certain is that Jonas, in shaping and offering his "tentative myth," has shown himself supremely sensitive to the permanent human need for encompassing myths and visions, and that, in his visionary response to the catastrophes of his time, to modern science, and to his own theological tradition, Jonas has risen to the highest calling of the philosopher: resisting the social disorder of his time and attempting to penetrate to its foundations, he has raised all the right questions.