In an essay for The American Conservative, Scott Beauchamp attempts to deconstruct the slang term “woke,” a term which, as he explains, arose out of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) before being assimilated (or appropriated) into mainstream culture. Beauchamp is no fan of this term, claiming that whatever validity it may or may not have had as part of AAVE (and Beauchamp is irritatingly ambivalent on this point), its purpose now is to identify members of what he calls “the clownish vulgate of online progressive culture, forged in the inchoate fires of a shrill Gnosticism.”
He claims that gnosticism is the “logos of millennial progressivism in our time” and that within this gnosticism, the term “woke” serves as “a stamp of approval, a self-congratulating label, a goal, a challenge...a boundary line separating people...a PC litmus test.” Beauchamp quotes an online Catholic encyclopedia definition of gnosticism: briefly summarized, the encyclopedia says gnosticism is a heresy claiming that salvation is found in quasi-mystical knowledge available only to an elite group who are deemed superior by virtue of this knowledge. To be “woke” according to Beauchamp’s analysis, is to be a smug progressive millennial who, as it turns out, is actually gnostic.
Like Beauchamp, I think that the term “woke” is often used as vapid progressive virtue-signaling. Moreover, in this essay I want to make a stronger case for implicit gnosticism in various contemporary ideologies by appealing to Eric Voegelin’s classic text Science, Politics and Gnosticism. But I also think that Beauchamp went after low-hanging fruit in what is largely a sermon to the choir: bashing liberals, especially “millennials” (read: young people these days) in a staunchly conservative publication is not all that helpful given that the analysis really only serves to affirm the heuristics of readers who already reject progressivism.
But there is an even greater missed opportunity in Beauchamp’s essay, namely, the opportunity to deeply consider the ramifications of gnosticism as a theological error with political implications. It is both ironic and tragic, given the subject matter of the essay, that it only superficially probes the nature of the malady (gnostic heresy) in its rush to enlighten readers on “The True Purpose of the Term ‘Woke.” The only reason I’m ragging on this is because it seems careless to gloss over the nature of gnosticism if the whole essay was meant to expose a particular expression of gnosticism as a danger to contemporary thought and discourse.
What is the nature of gnosticism?
Voegelin believes that gnosticism is characterized by a belief (implicit or explicit) in knowledge as the key to working out one’s salvation. Gnosticism is misdirected love. Voegelin reminds us that, at least in the classical understanding, “philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it.” This is directly contrasted with gnosticism which “desires dominion over being.” Voegelin writes that “in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system.” Put succinctly, gnosticism is the love of knowledge, not as an end (contemplation) but as means (knowledge as power.)
A telling example of this gnostic disposition is found in the character of Uncle Andrew from Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Uncle Andrew, the dabbler in magic who furnishes Polly and Digory with the rings that take them to Narnia. Uncle Andrew is rather more foolish than evil, but he is decidedly gnostic: his love is directed toward a giddy delight in secret knowledge and special power, and that disposition later turns him into the slave of the evil witch Jadis. Uncle Andrew illustrates the dangers of gnosticism to the individual soul.
As another example of gnosticism, one that showcases the more macroscopic dimension and the political implications, think of Saruman in Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Saruman’s gnosticism expresses itself in self-love, specifically the desire to be a god, to have full dominion. We can think of Saruman’s control over the orcs whom he has enslaved for his purposes as an expression of the gnostic’s desire to dominate being and subjugate it to fit the system the gnostic has designed. But remember also that even Saruman starts out with a desire to do good, even if he measures good in utilitarian terms: how true this is of the origins of so many of the totalitarian regimes we’ve seen in the last two hundred years.
To be clear, gnosticism is first a theological heresy before it is political ideology. That is to say, it is in its distortion of the Christian ideal of perfection (rooted in theological dogma) that the various political ideologies of gnosticism are birthed. Voegelin identifies two components of the Christian ideal of perfection, the teleological and the axiological. Our telos (what we are purposed toward) is union with God which is, crucially, only fully realized “through grace in death” The axiological component is the recognition that since our telos is understood to be a state of perfection, that state is of higher value than our current state.
Voegelin goes on to explain that “the gnostic mass movements derive their ideas of perfection from the Christian” but unlike the Christian, these movements posit that perfection can (and, in the Comtean strains, will) “come to pass within the historical world” (pre-death for the individual, pre-eschaton for humanity) such that “the teleological and axiological components can be immanentized either separately or together.” If immanentized together, the emphasis of the constructed system of the gnostic is on both ends and means, whereas immanentized separately, the emphasis is either on the ends or on the means.
To illustrate the immanization using earlier examples, Uncle Andrew is concerned almost exclusively with means whereas Saruman is concerned with both means and ends but especially ends. But regardless of how the gnostic system is constructed and whether it emphasizes ends or means, Voegelin writes that “all gnostic movements are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in divine, transcendent being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action.”
By reflecting even briefly on Voegelin's insight regarding world-immanent gnosticism, we can readily identify as gnostic the communist who justifies violence meted out by the State because it “serves the greater good.” We might, however, be less perceptive of the gnostic sensibilities in conservative (but actually neoliberal) arguments that the free market and Western democratic “way of life” will usher in an unprecedented degree of human flourishing if exported around the globe, a gnostic heresy which dominated GW Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East. And sure, progressive utopian pipe dreams like a globalized cosmopolitan paradise are obviously built on gnostic world-immanent conceptions, but so too are the “God helps people who help themselves” meritocratic understandings of material flourishing so often espoused on the political Right which are blind to the fragility of goodness and the interdependent factors on which flourishing is contingent.
My point is this: gnosticism is like the whack-a-mole game: it constantly pops up in unexpected places, garbed in unexpected guises. The whole “speck in his eye, log in mine” is especially relevant here: I can harp on the gnosticism of liberal coastal elites all day, but if I spend my time doing that, I will most assuredly be left unaware of my own gnostic tendencies which need expunging.
Intersecting Gnosticism and Woke
What does all this about gnosticism have to do with the term “woke”? It really depends on how we understand the word. On the one hand, Beauchamp is absolutely right that inasmuch as being “woke” means fancying that one has “special knowledge” through which the world can be saved or at least one’s being made more perfect, being “woke” means being gnostic. But here the gnosticism is akin to Uncle Andrew: immature, foolish, even wicked, not altogether innocuous, but certainly not worthy of derision as much as pity (Latin pietas being the root of both piety and pity.) And if the pitiable progressive millennial is gnostic in this manner, such a disposition can be replaced with the disposition of the philosopher by inviting said millennial into a loving affirmation of being.
Of course it should go without saying (but doesn’t) that we cannot help said millennial move from point A to point B if instead of lovingly enticing him toward the Good, we are instead smugly berating him for his folly behind his back in a sermon to the choir. The language of pity and of loving enticement does involve a condescension of sorts, the kind we see with the experienced lover in Plato’s Symposium who draws the inexperienced lover toward the Good. But this is a condescension rooted in love not for knowledge or power (as with the gnostic) but for persons with whom we are in loving relationship. On the other hand, if being “woke” means having eyes open to reality (being) as it truly is, recognizing all the tragedies and injustices present within the world and mourning it as one mourns harm done to our beloved, than “wokeness” is the very antithesis of gnosticism. And if the “progressive millennial”, perhaps by virtue of her readings in “intersectionality” for example, has a clearer view of a particular facet of reality in its myriad subtleties, than indeed she has much to teach, even if there remains disagreement between teacher and pupil on various questions of public policy.
I want to suggest that “woke” is a redeemable term. If we think of wokeness as loving attentiveness to reality, a commitment to seeing the world as it truly is, then we can see it as an antidote to gnosticism and, consequently, a vaccine against a whole assortment of ideology.