Ioan P. Culianu’s critique of Voegelin’s paranoia of gnostic ubiquity

For one thing, the term “gnosticism” in modern discourse has become such a protean label that it has all but lost any reliably identifiable meaning for the larger reading public. If you the reader have selected this book from a library or bookstore shelf merely on the basis of its title, Rethinking  “gnosticism”,  I literally have no certain idea what you might have expected to find in it, given the bewildering array of possible connotations of terms like  “gnosticism”,  “gnostic,” or “gnosis” to which you as a modern reader could have been exposed. In the afterword to the second edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Richard Smith has provided a handy survey of some of the appropriations of the term “gnosticism” in modern times, including the poetry of William Blake, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the psychological theory of Carl Jung, the fiction of Herman Hesse, the politics of Eric Voegelin, and several other examples. 1 The late Ioan Culianu once offered a similar survey, though with little sympathy for what he attacked as the overstretched comparisons now so commonly drawn. Opening with some premonitory sarcasm, Culianu mused:

Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of Late Antiquity. Of course, I was ready to accept the idea of different prolongations of ancient Gnosis and even that of spontaneous generation of views of the world in which, at different times, the distinctive features of Gnosticism occur again.
I was to learn soon, however, that I was a naïf indeed. Not only Gnosis was gnostic, but the catholic authors were gnostic, the neoplatonic too, Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Kafka, Rilke, Proust, Joyce, Musil, Hesse, and Thomas Mann were gnostic. From very authoritative interpreters of Gnosis, I learned further that science is gnostic and superstition is gnostic; power, counter-power, and lack of power are gnostic; left is gnostic and right is gnostic; Hegel is gnostic and Marx is gnostic; Freud is gnostic and Jung is gnostic; all things and their opposite are equally gnostic. 2

The problem, as Culianu observes, is with a word, a “sick sign,” that has come to mean too much, and therefore perhaps very little.

WILLIAMS, Michael Allen, Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton/New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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