Voegelin’s Gnosis, Part 3: Anismism

…to join the mortal and the eternal
and suppose that they can have feelings and actions in common
is imbecile. For what could be more incongruous,
or what could be more disjointed and inconsistent
than something mortal joined on to something immortal,
the two of them facing together the same cruel tempests?1

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book III, 800-805

The anti-ideologue or anismist, or in Voegelin’s usage the realist – who, as we have seen, must be a monotheist according to Voegelin, as a believer at least in the or a god of the philosophers – answers Lucretius by refraining from acknowledging this disagreement as more than a mere appearance of disagreement: The degree of belief in the possibility of final disagreement on this tenet becomes an index of ignorance: Who think they know, know nothing.

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Setting aside secondary questions – for instance, as to whether a merely apparent difference must still be a significant difference, if the only difference, or as to whether the phrase “merely apparent” is a sensible phrase in this context, or as to whether Lucretius and unwitting descendants were or are more or less right than Voegelin or than anyone else in particular – even granting that no detail regarding the most important event in or of history can safely be presumed unimportant, for GWF Hegel as well as for his adversary E Voegelin, for the Christian simply as well as for Muslims, for Jews, for non-theists and all utter non-believers, the figure as historical event of Jesus the Son of Man born and murdered remains the seminal realized figure of anthropormophosis of the divine for the only global history we know: an impossible conjunction of opposites, or multiplicitous and multiplex conjunction of conjunctions of opposites, including of the possible and the impossible, the simple and the complex, the absolute and the inabsolute; non-destructive resolution of all other contradictions; both as fact and as premonition of fact; discrete moment and container of all time; willed and unwilled, freely and necessarily, ultimately wrongly ultimately rightly; theodicy in theophany, the appearance of the divine instantly redeeming its own disappearance, a pre-conditional future: mysterium coniunctionis, complexio oppositorum, ad infinitum: a mass marriage of madness to sanity, evil to good, esoteric to exoteric, always already forever to never, and imbecility2 to genius.

For Hermann Cohen, echoing Moses Maimonides, the “fight against anthropomorphism” is “the very soul of Jewish religious education,” because nothing else, in the wake of the de-neutralization of “the One Who Is Being,” could prevent the “decline into myth” of Jewish thought.3 Cohen’s Judaism meets rational or ideal Islam in this pure monotheistic stance (against contradictions or apparent contradictions in the sacred scripture and commentaries of either tradition), but Islam, unlike Judaism, accepts Jesus Christ as messiah, if not as “Son of God” and member of a Holy Trinity (for Muslims a polytheistic figure). For conventional Islamic Christology, virtually every major aspect of the Christian myth and miracle, from immaculate conception, to the messianic status of Jesus/Isa, to His/his resurrection and apocalyptic return, is reinforced, except in the matter of an asserted monotheistic deficiency: the inconceivability of God or God’s prophet undergoing crucifixion. This clash of mythologems refers us to differences manifested systematically throughout the three religions, especially under the headings of shirk for Muslims, and idolatry for Jews (for Maimonides and Cohen including corporealism, or the notion of the divine as simply embodied). In short, neither Jews, nor Christians, nor Muslims are permitted merely to accept that their narratives remain co-terminous, parallel, mutually commensurate, and finally equivalent – like otherwise identical sentences under purely incidental alterations in punctuation. Indicatively, the Islamic narratives do not subtract miracles from the Gospels, as though to provide a merely more rational, naturalistic, or “easier-to-believe” if less interesting version of the same events. Instead, across varying traditions, they resort to further miraculous intercessions to rescue Isa from crucifixion: Rather than allow the messenger to suffer execution, Allah is said to have performed a last moment rescue and substitution, the description of whose precise character helps to differentiate one Islamic sect from another.

From the anismist perspective, here a syncretism, the very indistinction – anthropomorphosis of the divine, theomorphosis of the human – that shirk is designed to resist is resisted by a hopeless literalism: the doctrine of shirk is shirk to anismism, utmost shirk: the doctrine of anti-idolatry is a self-idolatry, and all iconoclasms and iconodulities alike are equally icons in the mind. Even-especially as anti-totemic absences, they are totems for display in the sacred imaginarium. Orthodox Muslim, Christian, and Jew do not mean for their truths to co-exist as mutually intersaturating equals, but one truth is that they do, in regard to Christology each reflecting a different permutation of anxiety or shame or sense of incapacity4 before the expression and experience of the inexpressible and impossible, the Lucretian imbecilic.

Refusing to choose between these and alternative interpretations, we can treat the common need for a bringing within the doctrine that which according to the doctrine absolutely precedes so is foundationally external to all doctrine; for a magical-miraculous or mytho-poetic assertion; or even for a peremptory rejection, as being more telling than any possible particulars of a proposed distinctive impossibility or super-possibility. Yet, the difficulties of conceiving “a crucifixion of God” and the complete “economics” of the Holy Trinity are, to say the least, not merely an abstract theological problem within and between Christianity and other faiths: The failure to resolve such difficulties satisfactorily had been a source of strife within and among Christian sects eventually culminating in the Wars of Religion, and the telling argument in favor of the secular dispensation or Great Separation of religion and state.

Voegelin’s teaching in Hitler and the Germans seems to be that the Separation may have offered a ceasefire, but could not bring peace, that in more ways than one, and in many ways at once, the false peace prepared the greater war. The argument was not as good as it seemed. History, or Spirit, demands a stronger argument.


The prospect or ongoing process of a kind of universal apotheosis, a bringing of the human to the divine which wherever announced or intimated or recalled has fascinated and inspired mystics and rebels of all types, threatens a commensurate demotion and impermissible and inconceivable derogation of its object.

The evils Voegelin analyzes in Hitler and the Germans exemplify the implied danger – not for the divine itself or anyway imagined as a divine substance, implicitly a substance or being insusceptible to injury, but, in relation to the divine as crossed or crossing, an always and inevitably real danger, or the essence of the dangerous. In Hitler and the Germans, the condition of having fallen away or fled from the divine or from experience of the divine, as a disease of the soul (a “pneumopathology”), provides for Voegelin’s most fundamental explanation of Hitler’s rise and for the criminality and horror of Nazi rule, as bi-conditional with the inability of the Germans of the ’30s and ’40s, and to a large extent also at the time of his lectures, and by no means the Germans alone at either or any time, to understand or recognize the disease at all. Voegelin’s claim against modernism as a faith in bad faith rests on a judgment against anti-apotheosis or de-sacralization – the Weberian diagnosis of “disenchantment” that Voegelin acknowledges not as mere description or metaphor, but as the identification of a plague, or the plague of plagues. Its etiology for Voegelin (somewhat as for Hegel, but explicitly borrowing terms from the Austrian writer Heimito von Doderer) is characterized by human  insistence on an image or ideology, a “second reality” (“picture thinking” or Vorstellung for Hegel) in place of the real “first reality,” the reality under God of reason or spirit as experienced by the Greeks or Israelites:

If the second reality becomes dominant in a society, there is indeed still formally a community made up of members of that society. But such a society perpetrates the highest betrayal of humanity. And in this kind of society anyone who is not alienated from the first reality can only commit high treason.

For Voegelin the gross social disorders that explain the Nazis and Nazism result from or are the enactment or realization, in a sense are the same as, an inadequately theomorphized, or a de-divinized and in that precise sense degraded, idea of the human.

This conceptual framework serves throughout Hitler and the Germans as an anismism of high explanatory power. The ideological construct National Socialism – so intellectually devoid and incoherent, in a word mad, that it hardly qualifies even as ideology – represents a second, false reality that an already vulnerable or disordered society eventually adopted in place of the simply true first reality, to inevitably catastrophic results. Under the same structure – again, treated as the inherent or essential structure of all possible universe, not as a mere theory or meta-belief (belief system, idea about belief, belief about belief, etc.) – de-divinization becomes a property of a false or second pseudo-reality that may seem real, but which, in being treated as real, reveals its falsehood in the damage that it does. It is concretely false.

Voegelin frames the specific failure under Nazism of German Christian churches, and especially of the Catholic Church, as a failure to understand themselves as representing universal humanity on behalf of Jesus Christ. For Voegelin, the sacred duty of all Christians (for Christians explicitly as a duty) is to serve the corpus mysticum Christi, the mystical body of Christ comprehending all of humanity from the first to the last human being.5 In the Nazi context, for Voegelin, that failure or unjustified constriction and segmentation of a truly universal or “catholic” Christianity resulted in and explains a readiness to ignore the interests, indeed the actual lives and deaths, of people except as they impacted upon the Church as a mere social-political grouping, one “compact” community among others. Under Voegelin’s perspective a truly Catholic, truly Christian church would have been incapable of ignoring, and through statements and omissions of leading German Catholics even justifying, the mass murder of non-Catholics, all of whom, regardless of whether or not they participated in church sacraments, should have been held “equal as participating in the reality of God.” In other words, Voegelin seeks to demonstrate that the divinized or apotheosized condition deserves the name “reality” not merely as a matter of logic or discursive justice, but as a matter of “real” life and death.6

In contemporary liberal democratic and secularist contexts, “disordered” in their own somewhat parallel or overlapping, if obviously non-identical ways, the sectarianism or “compactness” of religious belief seems in part to be a byproduct of the Great Separation of church and state. Within so-called secular (lineally Protestant) liberal democracy, the Catholic Church like every other religion or sect is on some level encouraged to tend its own flock, cultivate its own garden, suppress its own universalistic impetus and aspirations, and hand the higher level effort over to the political process, to national governance and the world state of states. Since members of every sect and followers of every creed are simultaneously encouraged to engage in ecumenical or so-called “interfaith” dialogue, the resultant civil discourse is pluralistically universal, and for the same reason non-unitary or divided against and within itself in regard to religion or so-called religion: The faiths or truncated faiths appear as contradictory claims to the universal in which the agreement to disagree agreeably, the ideal of the civil state, supersedes any separate idea of faith. It is a formula for stability that rests on a certain dishonesty or general acceptance of a stunted capacity, and that subtly erodes the meaning or reach of each particular faith even as, at least for now in America, it may seem to encourage and sustain traditional forms of religious devotion.

Yet “the Nones” increase in number, and real existing religious faith becomes more None-ish: “Religion” becomes a word for particularized devotion, then for particularization of devotion, then for particular preference, and finally for random inclination, lifestyle choice, or spiritualist hobby: for the opposite of religion. It is attacked on that basis, and has no concept to protect except in the end its inherited protected status: It finally rests fully within the state.


We can finally read Voegelin’s most famous statement back into its larger context as an anismist credo, indeed as simple anismism, and in relation to this re-consideration of Christianity as “reality” rather than as mere “idea” or “belief system”:

The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.

For Voegelin, the “ism” that presents itself as an ultimate solution, the gnosis that promises to “immanentize the eschaton” is never the solution. For Voegelin it is the problem and possibly the worst problem if not the only problem, the danger itself. The true real, the real that deserves to be real both because it is simply real and also because insisting on the false reality leads to catastrophe, would then be the anistic real, the divine real, the real prior to any ideological construct, reality experienced as reality, not occluded by any “ism” or by the whole procession of isms from the the Age of Enlightenment to the day after tomorrow, including above all materialism and scientism. Within this self-consciously anti-ideological discourse – a polemic situated at an asserted point of indistinction between polemic and philosophy – “reality” for Voegelin means divinized human life, presence before God as Voegelin has defined his God concept. It is not a “mandatory” belief: It is truth to be explored or ignored, stated or mis-stated.

Against Voegelin’s wishes or intentions, the Hegelian would without much effort locate and define a movement toward synthesis, a sublation or non-destructive union, between the ideological and anti-ideological assertions, at the same moment that the anti-immanent stance and its necessity are revealed to be immanently emergent and requiring immanentization provisionally. Put simply, under the risk of proposing a jargon, the question or counter-claim immediately arises as to whether any assertion, even a counter-assertion in the mode of pure negation, is not implicity an ism, or, we might say, ismic. The point at which the insight or observation of or insistence upon an “anism” or anti-gnosis converts into just another gnosis would be the central problem of anismism, the problem of anismism to itself, already foretold in the paradox of its name and the temptation to start tacking additional “isms” onto it: Anismismism would be very bad anismism as well as a bad joke, the false idol of the return to anism or the image of that return or the image of a discourse of discourses of that return, and so on, rather than any authentic return to the anismic real.

Voegelin suggested that fascination with such paradoxes was symptomatic of civilizational degeneracy, but he also considered modernity itself degenerate or perhaps more precisely degenerative, a process of degeneration, degeneration itself. In this belief he was most authentically and typically conservative, just as he was perhaps most modern in his insistence on a joint endeavor to throw off false and destructive beliefs. The problematic returns in the presence-before-God to whose real reality we must stipulate, for the sake of the consideration of anism, such consideration inevitably taking on the first paradoxical suffix that gives the ideology of no ideology its name.


  1. quippe etenim mortale aeterno iungere et una
    consentire putare et fungi mutua posse
    desiperest; quid enim diversius esse putandumst
    aut magis inter se disiunctum discrepitansque,
    quam mortale quod est inmortali atque perenni
    iunctum in concilio saevas tolerare procellas? []
  2. desiperest” – “desipere est” – “is devoid of content or sense, silly” []
  3. Literally, a “de-neutralization”: According to Cohen, Jewish thought resists Greek pantheism on the level of the word by turning the grammatically neuter “one” into a gendered “person,” but in so doing makes anthropomorphism “unavoidable,” and active vigilance against it a central task – Religion of Reason, I:13, pp. 43-4. Maimonides’ critique is more systematic, specifically seeking to counteract or explain away all evidence of “corporealization” in the Hebraic sources. (I am here adopting the commentary by Leo Strauss, “How To Begin To Study The Guide for the Perplexed,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern.) []
  4. …on original sin as existential condition see discussion in Out of Eden, Paul W Kahn, for example p. 116 and following. []
  5. Voegelin’s interpretation of corpus mysticum Christi may diverge from a conservatively Thomist concept. That, in Germany and elsewhere in the ’30s and ’40s, Christians sought to justify allegiance to the Third Reich, under whatever terms including Thomist ones, is the problem Voegelin is examining. He denies that the “compact” definition can be the proper one, but precisely where this would place him in the Catholic or Christian tradition is not a question I would seek here to resolve. []
  6. One might compare the conflicted or dual role of the Catholic Church or its representatives, providing both warranty and resistance, complicity and witness, in previous eras of the mass annihilation of non-Christian peoples. []

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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