Pantheism and Totalitarianism

Disappointed both in his quest for pseudo-divine self-glorification and pseudo-divine self-annihilation, the romantic settled for cynical and/or sensualist naturalism. This was one of the ways in which the dialectic of the two wings of modernity was carried on, and rationalism and scientism, at length, reasserted themselves. The transformation into scientistic materialism was implicit in the pantheism of both rationalism and romanticism, and it was worked out, in different fields of thought and knowledge, primarily by the Young Hegelians, the French utopian socialists, and naturalists like Taine, Renan, and Haeckel, who in their very scientism are still typical romantic pantheists.

After the interlude of impersonalist idealism’s threat of absorbing the person into ideas, the person was thus again faced with the threat of being absorbed into matter. We are talking here about the most palpably concrete social realities, in the era of nationalism and incipient industrial warfare. Idealism was distorted and transformed into naturalism. In new spectacular forms of undiminished extremism, the two wings of modernity continued to spur each other on to further excess, locked in the fatal and by now centuries-old anti-differentiational dialectic in which the reality and the values of the person were ever insecure.

Heretical pantheism has become the orthodoxy of the modern West. It is not that this new pantheism denies that pantheism is older than Platonism and Christianity. The idea of a primitive pantheism appears in innumerable speculations, scientific as well as popular. Yet these speculations are decisevely shaped by specifically modern presuppositions. Not least, the whole speculative interpretation of history is an exclusively modern phenomenon. The intention of the modern pantheist’s progressivism is partly what is perceived as a “restoration” of what is perceived as original non-differentiation. But the meaning and nature of the non-differentiation of early pantheism is radically transformed by the romanticization, as mere compactness, i.e. non-differentiation or rudimentary differentiation, is replaced by principled, nihilistic anti-differentiation. Modern pantheism is sui generis.

Pantheism thoroughly shaped modern liberal theology, and in the characteristic form of Kulturprotestantismus, Christianity increasingly ignored its traditional concern with personal salvation and turned towards immanent objectives and secular culture: the moralism of sentimental humanitarianism, philanthropy, social involvement, and political activism. As the world set the agenda of the Church, salvation, faith, and spirituality receded. Significantly, it was all done through the standard device of reinterpretation of the very meaning of salvation, faith, and spirituality.

Without exception, the secular Ersatz religions of modernity tended to reduce man to the lower levels of reality, the levels which did not constitute his personhood. [For a Voegelinian intellectual history of the secular political religions, see Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War (London: Harper Collins, 2005); this volume was followed by a second part on the twentieth century: Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror (2008). The work is not without its flaws, and the relation between those flaws and Voegelin’s positions are worth analysing at some length, but this cannot be done here.] Born of the most high-flown romanticism, Marxism set forth a new, dynamized materialism, and denigrated the individual to the point of proclaiming the essence of man to be his true collectivity. Soon the doctrine was put into practice through the liquidation of unessential individuals by the millions.

All the while utopians in the West ignored this and played it down, and countless philosophers insisted, unperturbed, on their own increasingly totalitarian system in the theoretical form of positivistic and neo-positivistic, reductive scientism and utilitarianism and in the practical form of manipulative social engineering. High modernism and psychoanalysis set about revealing the weakness of the bourgeois remnants of the modern rational self through new aesthetic and therapeutic means. Primitivity and violence were celebrated. Capitalism still partly inspired by the individualism of classical political economy continued to shape the history of one half of the world, while the other succumbed to the new totalitarian collectivisms. In its new, existentialist form, individualist “freedom” itself was used by Sartre to support one of the latter.

By many strategies, the differentiational framework which had made possible the understanding of the person and its values was thus gradually dismantled. When the experience of the metaxy was obscured or made impossible, and its institutional embodiment and transmission abolished, it could no longer inspire order in the soul and order in society, and thus withstand and restrain the pantheistic revolution. Destroying the differentiation that is the person’s precondition, the closed immanence of secular modernity, in all of its versions, revealed itself as a threat to the person.

3 Responses to “Pantheism and Totalitarianism”


  1. 1 John Anngeister May 15, 2014 at 3:53 am

    “Idealism was distorted and transformed into naturalism.”

    Very succinct. Maybe too succinct for superficial readers. If I had not been studying effects of pantheism and atheist humanism upon XIX cent. Idealism, I might not see that your statement above is valid, but I do in fact believe it is right and even takes the discussion to a new level of understanding for myself.

    Geroulanos, in “An Atheism that is not Humanist Emerges in French Thought” (2008) gives evidence that allows the inference that consistent atheism can lead to a kind of unexpected attack on humanity.

    I think the same holds for pantheism, in that it begins by exalting the collective and ends by nullifying it and demeaning it.

  2. 2 wlindsaywheeler November 29, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Isn’t this “pantheism” you are talking about what Giordano Bruno wanted to teach? Isn’t this behind Freemasonry? This universal moral religion?

    • 3 Jan Olof Bengtsson December 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Yes, to a considerable extent it is, in a general sense. But there are many complexifying factors here, and I plan to write more about them later. Have you read the other parts of this series in the Personalism category?


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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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