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The Ancestry and Legacy of the Philosophes

Edmund Burke records that two thirds of the Anglican clergy initially supported the French Revolution.  He wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France to show that the Revolution was not merely an understandable effort at reform but an entirely unique intellectual and spiritual pathology.  A language for this disorder of the soul did not exist in Burke’s time, and his own effort to form one, though rhetorically brilliant, was not successful.  Later thinkers would describe it as the work of “the Enlightenment,” “ideology,” “rationalism,” or of an elite sect of subversive intellectuals known as the “philosophes” or, as they would later be called in Russia, the “intelligentsia.”

These expressions are insightful, but they all presuppose that the pathology in question is unique to modern times—that, apparently from nowhere, there appeared in 18th-century Europe a perverse and destructive form of thought that is still with us.  The truth, however, is that this intellectual and spiritual pathology is quite ancient and goes to the very roots of Western culture.  Eric Voegelin provides a better account in describing the pathology of the French Revolution, and of later ideologies, as a modern form of gnosticism—an heretical movement within early Christianity.  Certainly, there are striking parallels between gnosticism...

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