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gnosticismA culture cannot survive without a religion, at least not for long. A culture derives from the cultus, the group of people, usually based on kinship ties, who banded together to worship the same deity or deities. Once a common worship and understanding of theology develop, a culture developed from it. From the culture, then comes economics, politics, and law. The ideologues attack only the superficial elements of society: economics, politics, and law; hoping to reorder the culture, they only distort and destroy.

Some, especially in the twentieth century, had not lost God as much as they had grown to resent Him. This was especially true of those who adopted and adhered to the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism.1 Twentieth-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin, wrote:

The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and he had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.2

C.S. Lewis aptly described this phenomenon in both his philosophical Abolition of Man and his fantasy story for adults, That Hideous Strength. In the former, Lewis concluded this exchange of morality for technological prowess was nothing less than the “magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return.”3

There can be only one solution to the Gnostic intrusions in the modern world, the arrival of an anamnesis.

The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder of society. The Gnostic’s flight from a truly dreadful, confusing, and oppressive state of the world is understandable. But the order of the ancient world was renewed by that movement which strove through loving action to revive the practice of the “serious play” (to use Plato’s expression)—that is, by Christianity.4

There have been many such fortuitous arrivals: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to preserve the best of ancient Athens; Cicero to preserve the best of Republican Rome; St. Augustine to preserve the best of Christian Rome; St. Boniface to take the best of the classical and Christian and mix it with the best of the barbarian; men such as St. Francis or St. Ignatius to root out corruption from the Church; the American founding fathers who took the best of the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Medievals as a foundation for the American Republic.

More often than not, though, the rank and file who follow the ideologues have few real ideas of their own. Indeed, they join the cause and adopt the methods of thuggery to alleviate their boredom, as the experiences of National Socialism and Communism proved in Germany and Russia respectively.5 Finding no fulfillment in modernity or consumerism—and with religion enfeebled—the average person turns to something that gives him a higher purpose. God created us to find religion, to find Him. Man without true religion is empty. He finds himself devoid of something, but that something remains elusive. He will seek until he finds either true religion or a substitute that temporarily fills the void. “The ordinary man will never stand for nihilism: it is against all his healthier instincts,” Dawson wrote in 1955.6 To find a substitute, man turns in many directions: utopianism, drugs, and cults, “leaving the enemy in possession of the field.”7 The machine of the ideologues subsumes the lost. Norman Cohn, the great historian of the medieval period, put it frankly:

There exists a subterranean world, where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when that underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people.8

In an era that shuns true creativity and the finding of one’s place in the Created Order, it should surprise no one that the bored look to those with ideas presented as absolutes. Such absolutes, no matter how false, give the joiner a perceived purpose in a world drastically adrift from its traditional moorings.

There are also those who adopt ideology simply as a means of power. Scholars such as Dawson and Friedrich Hayek have explored this aspect of the ideological regimes. Hayek, in his 1974 Nobel Prize address, called the mentality of the ideologue and his followers “the fatal conceit,” the erroneous belief that any one person or group of persons can control, or even understand, another person. Each being is simply too complex to understand even himself fully. With the fatal conceit, a deluded individual believes he can reshape the world in his own image, overturning centuries of finely-evolved history, morality, philosophy, and genetic selection. Rooted in the English Whig and classical republican traditions, Hayek described it well. Ideologues hate the natural order and the Natural Law. They demand that “everything must be tidily planned” by an “all-powerful central government.”9 Ironically, as already demonstrated, their attempt to create order only begets severe and violent disorder, the shattering of the soul and the world.

Utopia/Dystopia

Interestingly enough, though utopia meant “nowhere,” it possessed only little currency in the West through much of its history. The fear that utopia might mean something very different from what its advocates desired first appeared in English in 1715 in Thomas Berington’s News from the Dead; or, the Monthly Packet of True Intelligence from the Other World. Written by Mercury. As Bulgarian scholar V.M. Budokov has painstakingly and philologically revealed, Berington employed the word seventeen times. In each usage, Berington meant to create a “satiric vision of Britain that inveighs against impiety in contemporary society and views life as a moral nightmare.” The author wanted the reader to associate “Cacotopia” with hell or, perhaps, “worse than hell.” In Cacotopia, the depraved and unethical rule through sacrilege. Though officially atheistic, Cacotopians never cease discussing matters of religion, being obsessed with the topic,10 but, ultimately, worship something close to Mammon.11

If the word appeared in print before 1715 or between 1715 and 1818, no scholar has found it. In his utilitarian Plan of Parliamentary Reform, published first in 1817 and then again, revised, a year later, Jeremy Bentham used the term as “the imagined seat of the worst government.”12 His most important follower and student, John Stuart Mill, used the term again in 1868, claiming ,“What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.” Mill further argued that in place of the term Utopian, one should call them a dys-topian or a cacao-topian.13 Less frequently, authors also used terms such as “anti-utopians,” “nasty utopia,” or “inverted utopians.”

The term dystopian seems to have remained unused in English until 1952 when two authors, Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick, believed they were coining the term in their anthology of thirty-three utopian visions, Quest for Utopia.14 At this point, regardless of its original usage, dystopian claimed a permanent place (at least, as of 2014) in the English language. Only a decade after Quest for Utopia, Professor Chad Walsh of Beloit College, the man who had introduced C.S. Lewis to Americans in the 1940s, published what must be regarded as the first great study of dystopian literature, From Utopia to Nightmare. Based on a series of lectures from 1959, Walsh’s 1962 book claims that the very change of projected bliss to projected nightmare reveals a fundamental change in the understanding of the human person toward and of his surrounding world. Walsh notes that while man still believed in formulating utopia, he equally understood that such a utopia could never be sustained.15 Five years later, in 1967’s The Future as Nightmare, Mark Hillegas claimed that the change and shift from utopia to dystopia in the popular mind came with the regimes of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.16

As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, dystopia has entered the Anglo-American vocabulary with a vengeance. Children’s books, cartoons, and rock bands throw the term around without hesitation. Novels appear frequently employing the concept, as do comic books and graphic novels. Nowhere, though, does dystopia play such a role in current culture as it does in film and on TV. From Blade Runner to Dark City to Batman Begins, and from the X-Files to Firefly to Fringe, dystopias abound on huge and small screens. Some dystopias are clinically clean, while others ooze grit and muck. Perhaps most importantly, dystopias or dystopian elements appear in a variety of genres and arts. While some authors have blatantly employed dystopia as a genre, such as in P.D. James’s The Children of Men (1992) or in the videogame Bioshock (2002), others have employed singular dystopian elements such as Stephen King in The Stand (1978) or Joss Whedon in Firefly (2002). It is these latter ideas that demonstrate the acceptance and prevalence of dystopia as an idea, showing that it can be casually or informally dropped into various arts, recognizable by its varied audiences.

In many ways, dystopian literature legitimized science fiction as a genre. Prior to the 1950s, most viewed science fiction literature—known in the 1930s and 1940s as “scientifiction” or as “pseudoscience fiction”—as nothing more than stories for boys–pulp, often paradoxically sold in drug stores and train stations next to quasi-pornographic and sadistic material.17 With the rise of serious fantastic literature, such as that by Huxley, Lewis, and Orwell, all respected scholars and men of letters, science fiction took on an air of respectability it had never previously enjoyed. “Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, you will be glad to hear, went down very well in science fiction circles, and has been assimilated into the medium, as it were,” Amis claimed.18 But, even this could not satisfy the critics. Those who admired Huxley, Lewis, and Orwell all claimed the men to be writing creatively, not simply as “science fiction” writers. The same case would later be made for the dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy. They only “accidentally” had written science fiction. Even as science fiction became more respectable in the 1950s, critics remained adamant it was poor form of literature. Calling those who wrote and read science fiction members of a “cult,” Siegfried Mandel and Peter Fingesten, in the August pages of the Saturday Review, broadly dismissed the genre as simply a “moody discontent with things as they are,” a “magnified claustrophobia.”19

The essence of this guide (of which this essay is Part 2), I hope, will prove the Saturday Review not just wrong, but very, very wrong.

1 On Gnosticism, see Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity 2nd ed (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1963). See also Mark A. Kalthoff’s excellent, “Contra Ideology,” Faith and Reason 30 (2005): 221-241.

2 Voegelin, New Science of Politics, 131-32. See also Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2005), 26-27.

3 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 80.

4 Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago, Ill: Regnery, 1968), 12. See also Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

5 Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 107; and Kirk, “The Uninteresting Future,” Commonwealth (June 3, 1960): 249.

6 Dawson, Devon, ENG, to Father Leo Ward, Notre Dame, Ind., 20 February 1955, in Folder 5, Box 1, ND/CDAW.

7 Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” 158.

8 Quoted in Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 8.

9 Friedrich A. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1972), 27. See also, Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 21, 27, 49, 75.

10 Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (New York: Ballantine, 1960), 66.

11 V.M. Budakov, “Cacotopia: An Eighteenth-Century Appearance in News from the Dead (1715),” Notes and Queries (2011): 391-394. Budakov’s description of Berington’s use of the term as a false or corrupt Britain seems very close to C.S. Lewis’s contrast between Logres and Britain in That Hideous Strength (1943) as explored later in this book.

12 The Oxford English Dictionary mistakenly claims the Bentham as the neologician behind the term. See “Cacotopia” in OED. A few recent scholars have attempted to resurrect the term “cacotopia,” distinguishing it from dystopia. Cacotopia, they assert, refers to the moral collapse of society while dystopia refers to the political collapse. See, for example, Matthew Beaumont, “Cacotopianism, the Paris Commune, and England’s Anti-Communist Imaginary, 1870-1900,” ELH 73 (Summer 2006): 465-487; and Eric D. Smith, “’A Presage of Horror!’: Cacotopia, the Paris Commune, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Criticism 52 (Winter 2010): 71-90.

13 Mill quoted in OED, “dystopian.”

14 Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick, The Quest for Utopia (New York: Henry Schuman, 1952).

15 Walsh, From Utopia to Nightmare (London, ENG: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), 16.

16 Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967).

17 The best examination of the culture of pulp writing in the 1930s-1950s is Frank Gruber, Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles, CA: Sherbourne Press, 1967). Gruber believed that all writers of “pseudoscience writers were weirdies” (pg. 48). The term, he claimed “was a rather broad one to begin with. It included ‘science’ stories, fantasy, tales of monsters and werewolves” (pg. 49). See also, C.S. Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in Walter Hooper, ed., Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace), 59-73. Terminology remains contentious. Russell Kirk, for example, happily called all such literature—science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, and apocalyptic—a form of fabulism. See, for example, Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things. Tom Shippey, perhaps the greatest living scholar of the genres, has labels it “fabril.” See Shippey, “Introduction,” to The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): ix-x.

18 Amis, New Maps of Hell, 66.

19 Siegfried Mandel and Peter Fingesten, “The Myth of Science Fiction,” Saturday Review (August 27, 1955), 7-8. Not surprisingly, many critics of the non-fiction works of Russell Kirk argued the very same about the conservative. He was a man merely discontent with his place in time and space, moody about a lost world that never actually existed.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Bravo!

    Which reminds me of a comment by the recently deceased Archbishop of Chicago re his death in bed, the death of his successor in prison, the death of his successor as a martyr, followed by the next successor who will serve the church in the re-ordering of civilizations remnant.

    The great drama is a contest between a sometimes subtle evil and good.

  2. Superb, leaving me eager for more. While Huxley, Orwell and Lewis constructed full dystopias, the other giants of science fiction probed into how it may happen; not with fully constructed hells, but with morality seen through the lenses of other planets or new technololgies that force ethical decisions (or not). Hence, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury took unchangeable man and unchangeable laws of physics and viewed them through changeable circumstances. Some say the science fiction’s golden age was virtually the only moral fiction in its day.

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