Eric Voegelin was one of the most learned scholars of the 20th century. This work, which goes beyond what might be considered a "science of politics," is a fairly complete exposition of some of the central themes of philosophy, particularly how they relate to politics. Voegelin's thesis is (in part) roughly as follows: Christianity, particularly in its Augustinian version, dedivinzed the universe. In this process, man saw his limited, creaturely role. However, various revolutionary movements arose which sought to redivinize man and society. These movements were largely "gnostic" in orientation. This gnosticism can be seen in the revolutionary philosophies of our time, such as Comteianism, Marxism, and Nazism. "These Gnostic experiences . . . are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense." [p. 124.] One gnostic phenomenon Voegelin calls "immanitizing the eschaton" in which revolutionaries attempt to create utopia on earth. They often follow a version of Joachim's "three ages" scheme: for example, Comte's approach to history (theological, metaphysical, and scientific phases); the Marxian three stages of society (primitive, class-based, and communistic); and Nazism with its "Third Reich." [pps. 112-13.]
Voegelin's learning is nothing short of astounding. He is at ease discussing topics as diverse as ancient philosophy, the inscriptions of King Darius I, the Mongol Orders of Submission, and various Puritan literature.
There are a couple problems with this work. First, Voegelin has a rather freewheeling use of the term "gnosticism" which he seems to apply to just about everything he doesn't like. For example, the Protestant Reformation was "the successful invasion of Western institutions by Gnostic movements." [p. 134.] While gnosticism may be an appropriate way to describe various movements that sprung up at the time of the Reformation, this is an unfair characterization of Protestantism as a whole. [See Murray Rothbard's essay "Karl Marx as Religious Eschatologist" in The Logic of Action II.] In fact, Voegelin goes so far as to call Calvin's Institutes a "Gnostic Koran"! [p. 139.] He also sees gnostic elements in Paul and Isaiah, among others. Second, it's kind of hard to determine exactly what Voegelin's own views are. Although he has been praised by many Christian writers, he apparently wasn't a Christian in the traditional sense. He called himself a "mystic." [Michael Franz, Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt, p. 70 n. 11.] In fact, David Gordon, echoing R.J. Rushdoony, recently stated that Voegelin was himself a gnostic! [David Gordon, Mises Review, Fall 2000.]