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437 15 The Persistence of Gnosis Freedom and “Error” in Philosophical Modernity Coleridge’s imaginative tabulation of the “costs of modernity,” already on display in some of his poetry but much more expansively in his prose writings beginning with The Friend (1808), marks the beginning of a turn, in both philosophy and poetics, away from instrumental and pragmatic models of rationality and toward the (mostly negative) knowledge of history as one all-pervading miscarriage. It is no accident that this shift should have coincided with a rapprochement of philosophy (theology) and poetics in writers like Coleridge, Blake, Hölderlin, Schelling, and Schopenhauer, among others.1 To inhabit modernity is to find oneself burdened 1. With Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as crucial transitional figures, this shift culminates in by now canonical critiques of modernity that have appeared over the last eighty years or so. Aside from what may well be the Urtext of philosophical critiques of modernity, Heidegger’s Being and Time (1928), other relevant texts would include Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1946), Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960), Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), Hans Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966/1976), Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Modern Self (1989), Anthony Giddens’s Consequences of Modernity (1990), Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity (1993), and John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (1991/2006); it goes without saying that these books follow very different methodological routes and reach often substantially different, at times diametrically opposed conclusions; some of these differences are highlighted by Blumenberg’s response to some of his critics in the second (1976) edition of his magnum opus; for a judicious, if 438 retrieving the human with the complex and permanently incomplete task of theoretical self-legitimation and, hence, to be entangled in the project of modern “critique” (in the Kantian sense) as an ongoing attempt at delineating the limits of reason in new and largely uncharted modes of poetic, philosophical, and theological writing. However different their execution in most respects, critiques of modernity from Blake and Coleridge onward converge in their challenge to the idea of reason as categorically secular, self-­ legitimating, self-sufficient, and free of historical presuppositions. Especially for Coleridge, undertaking a critique of modernity means, first and foremost, to retrieve and reconsider the intellectual, aesthetic, and theological traditions on whose displacement (or repression) the modern project is premised. In so doing, Coleridge finds that beginning with the theological, cultural, cosmological, and epistemological transformations wrought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, modernity continues to wrest with antagonisms that had already vexed the patristic writers as they sought to demarcate Christian theology from the competing, post-Aristotelian schools of skepticism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Gnosticism of the Hellenistic period . Anticipating in particular Hans Blumenberg’s account of modernity as a renewed confrontation with the unresolved legacy of Gnosticism, Coleridge interprets modern mechanism, materialism, and voluntarism as latter-day symptoms of lingering problems in philosophical theology—specifically as regards the notions of the will, the person, and conscience. As he sees it, a thorough critique of Enlightenment rationalism must confront the scope and internal antagonisms of early Christian eschatology that, beginning with Descartes, had been displaced into a question of scientific method and the underlying assumption that rational procedure would eventually sort out lingering questions concerning the sources of self-awareness, moral obligation, and the enigma of salvation. Yet it turns out that the Cartesian cogito’s asserted self-identity and freedom, far from settling these questions, opens up an ontological question that, as Blumenberg has argued, had never been conclusively answered since its initial discovery by the Gnostic philosophers of the second and third centuries A.D. Almost exclusively defined by the heresiological writings of the church fathers opposed to it (Irenaeus of Lyon, Hyppolitus of Rome, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen), Gnosticism encompasses a considerable variety of positions that straddle both the conceptual and geographical boundaries between the Hellenistic syncretism of the Eastern Mediterranean and the apostolic model of early Western Christianity. What for Irenaeus resembled a “many-headed hydra” was above all understood by its main proponents (Valentinus, Marcion, Menander) as a religion whose members sought sharply critical account of Blumenberg, see Pippin, “Blumenberg and the Modernity Problem,” in Idealism, 265–285. The Persistence of Gnosis 439 “knowledge” (γνῶσις) by esoteric and often multifarious interpretive means.2 As the Coptic writings in the so...


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