On the one hand... there begins in the eighteenth century a continuous stream of literature on the decline of Western civilization; and, whatever misgivings one may entertain on this or that special argument, one cannot deny that the theorists of decline on the whole have a case. On the other hand, the same period is characterized, if by anything, by an exuberantly expansive vitality in the sciences, in technology, in the material control of environment, in the increase of population, of the standard of living, of health and comfort, of mass education, of social consciousness and responsibility.
Voegelin then poses the question, how is it possible that a civilization can be advancing and declining at the same time? A partial answer, he explains, can be found through an analysis of modern gnosticism.
Gnostic speculation moved away from transcendence, he suggests, and thus endowed immanentized man with a means of eschatological fulfilment. I’m not sure that eschatological fulfilment can logically be said to proceed from immanentization, but Voegelin then contends that, because of this, ‘civilizational activity [becomes] a mystical work of self-salvation’. Well, perhaps. And perhaps not. This gets to a major problem with Voegelin’s thesis on gnosticism – one which he later came to accept himself – that he includes within his definition of gnosticism such a broad range of beliefs and belief-systems that it becomes impossible to make any logical connection between them. It is quite possible, for example, that National Socialists saw their millennial plans to establish a Third Reich as a ‘mystical work of self-salvation’. But it is quite ludicrous to ascribe such a belief to a follower of scientific reason, and yet Voegelin would indeed class this person, too, as gnostic. However, let’s follow his argument.
The spiritual yearning of the soul, now freed from the Christian ‘sanctification of life’, is now able to devote itself to the ‘more appealing’ divertissement of creating a terrestrial paradise. Voegelin quotes Nietzsche’s contention that there was no need to seek the love and grace of God because one can “Love yourself through grace... then you are no longer in need of your God.’ Voegelin then lists how one may find such self-grace but, once more, his conflation of beliefs becomes problematic: this ‘miracle’ may be achieved through the immortality which attends literary and artistic achievement for the humanistic intellectual; or through the Puritan’s sense of discipline; or the liberal’s contribution to civilizational progress; or through the revolutionary action of a communist or other millennarian. What these have in common, Voegelin suggests, is that in this concentration on intramundane activity there rests a 'premium of salvation'. In other words, these people – Renaissance artists, enlightenment scholars, Puritan fundamentalists, liberal progressivists and fascist dictators – devoted their energies to such a degree towards ensuring their own immortality that they - almost coincidentally - contributed to those extraordinary developments which saw the ‘magnificent spectacle of Western progressive society'. But this is nonsense. It is simply not possible to compare the motivations and actions of such a disparate range of individuals in this way.
Voegelin then concludes his argument with a mischievous sleight of hand, when he further attributes to this range of individuals the beliefs of just one, Comte, presumably on the basis that it is easier to fit Comte’s positivist views into Voegelin's meretricious argument that all gnostics were driven by the need for immortality, by a need for personal salvation. This argument must fail because Voegelin is ascribing religious sensibilities to people who are, in some cases at least, not religious. The idea of personal salvation cannot explain the actions of a scientist.
Comte is then described as a ‘Gnostic paraclete setting himself up as the world-immanent Last Judgement of mankind, deciding on immortality or annihilation for every human being’. We are thus taken to 'the end of progress', to 'holes of oblivion' because 'the death of the spirit is the price of progress'. And in this way, Voegelin argues, civilization is advancing and declining at the same time: its very success is the cause of its decline.
But this argument works only if, firstly, you accept his tendentious conglomeration of a wide range of beliefs into a blanket description of gnostic; and, secondly, if you allow the actions and beliefs of each of these groups to be analysed and defined in religious terms which the holders of those beliefs would not recognise or acknowledge.