Wokism is the New Face of An Old Heresy, And It Can Be Defeated Again
Philosopher Ed Feser argues that the new “higher gnosis” of woke ideology, pseudo-religion and anti-politics is a lot like an older gnosticism which was once defeated — and can be again.
In the early thirteenth century, a fanatical religious movement known to history as Catharism or Albigensianism spread throughout southern France. Its fashionableness led self-interested local nobility to favor it. But so bizarre and subversive of social order were its doctrines that political and ecclesiastical authorities beyond the region judged its suppression to be urgent. At first the preferred methods were preaching and public disputation, with the new Dominican order taking the lead. But these appeals to reason proved inadequate, and after a papal legate was murdered by a Cathar, a military solution seemed unavoidable. Thus was launched the Albigensian Crusade – a venture notorious for excess and whose participants did not all have pure motives, but which did succeed in destroying the toxic movement.
What was the content of Catharism? It was grounded, first and foremost, in the conviction that the world is absolutely permeated by evil. This is not the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, but something much darker. For the Cathars, the natural order is not the creation of a benevolent deity from whose grace we have fallen. Rather, they held that it always was in the first place the product of an evil power. And they identified this evil power with the God of the Old Testament, the authority of which they rejected. On the Cathar conception of salvation, the imperative is not to redeem the natural order but to be altogether liberated from it, and thereby to be “Pure Ones” (the literal meaning of Cathari).
Those closest to achieving this were known as the Perfect, who took on the full weight of Catharist moral discipline. Its chief component was renunciation of marriage and children, which were regarded as wicked insofar as they perpetuated the evil natural order of things. Meat and dairy products were also eschewed, given their connection to procreation. Private property was rejected. Capital punishment and war were condemned as intrinsically immoral. Yet suicide was not only permitted but commended for those judged ready for it. Infanticide was sometimes practiced. And as the murder of the papal legate illustrates, the Cathars would sometimes resort to violence in order to protect the movement itself.
Most adherents of the Cathar movement (the “Believers” rather than the Perfect) were not expected immediately to adopt its austere ethic in its entirety, though. Hence, while complete abstinence from sex was considered the ideal, sexual indulgence was tolerated among Believers as long as it did not lead to procreation. Indeed, sexual practices of the kind that carried no risk of pregnancy were judged permissible, and extreme debauchery was frequently a part of Cathar life. Whereas the Church favored sex when it was procreative, the Cathars favored it only when it was not procreative.
Since the God of the Old Testament was identified with the devil, biblical heroes like Abraham and Moses were dismissed as diabolical agents, and divine acts of judgment like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned as murderous. While the Cathars regarded themselves as the Children of Light, they judged those who approved of living as human beings have always lived – marrying and having children, practicing sexual restraint outside of that context, owning property, using animals for food, resorting to war and the death penalty when justice and order made it necessary – as the Children of Darkness. Since these things are just commonsense preconditions of the social order, it is no surprise that ecclesiastical and political authorities judged Catharism to be radically subversive of that order and in need of suppression.
Precursors and successors
The basic ideas of the Cathars were neither original with them nor died with them. As Steven Runciman recounts in his classic work The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy, similar themes were to be found in earlier heresies like Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and Paulicianism. And as Eric Voegelin argued in The New Science of Politics, they have in the post-Enlightenment period taken on new, secularized and political forms in ideologies like Marxism and Nazism. The key difference is that these modern political forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism “immanentize” or reconceive in naturalistic terms what had, in the Middle Ages, been understood in religious and metaphysical terms. For example, whereas the source of all evil is taken by Catharism to be the God of the Old Testament, for Marxism it is capitalism and for Nazism it is world Jewry. Whereas for Catharism, salvation involves liberation of spirits from the material world, for Marxism it involves the overthrow of capitalism and the achievement of communism, and for Nazism it is the Final Solution and the Thousand-Year Reich. And so on.
It is also important to note that none of the medieval or modern variations on Gnosticism and Manicheanism constitutes a tight, well-defined system, nor do they all contain exactly the same theses. But certain themes and a general frame of mind recur, such as: the conviction that the existing order of things is evil to the core; a revelatory gnosis that uncovers this purported truth and the radical means of remedying it; and a Manichean division of mankind into the good and enlightened, who accept this gnosis, and the wicked, who resist it.
As Runciman indicates, variations on this Gnostic-Manichean fanaticism tend to arise when some among the powerful and wealthy find it useful to promote it and the Church has fallen into too corrupt a state to offer an attractive alternative. But these are at best necessary rather than sufficient conditions, and the deeper, psychological root appears to be an unwillingness to accept reality as it is, a morbid obsession with its defects, and a paranoid tendency to exaggerate them. When all the conditions are in place, the result can be quite virulent. In his book The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc observes: “The Manichean business, whenever it appears in history, appears as do certain epidemic diseases of the human body. It comes, you hardly know whence. It is found cropping up in various centers, increases in power and becomes at last a sort of devastating plague” (p. 86).
In a Catholic World Report essay not too long ago, I argued that the so-called “woke” phenomenon, which has in recent years suddenly risen to enormous influence in Western politics and culture , is best understood as a new riff on the Gnostic-Manichean style of politics identified by Voegelin. There is the characteristic thesis that the everyday world is utterly suffused with evil – “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity,” “transphobia,” and the like, all interlocked to form a suffocating structure of “intersectional” oppression. There is the appeal to various forms of gnosis (Critical Race Theory, feminist theory, gender studies, etc.) that purportedlyallow the adept to perceive this oppression in a way others cannot. There is the Manichean divide between those who are enlightened by this gnosis and the wicked who resist it.
But attention to the details reveals disturbing further parallels with Catharism in particular, even if they manifest in secular rather than theological terms. For example, the “transgender”phenomenon evinces an alienation from the body and from the natural end of sex no less radical than that of the Cathars, and with comparable intellectual incoherence and moral disorder as its sequel. For the Cathar, the body is like a dark prison from which the spark of light that is the true self seeks release. For a “trans” person, his male body (for example) belies his true self as a “trans woman,” or as “non-binary,” or as having some other “gender identity.” For the Cathar not ready to advance to the status of the Perfect, the body’s appetites may nevertheless be freely indulged, even to the point of extreme debauchery, so long as procreation is avoided. For the trans person, the body’s sexual organs might be destroyed and refashioned so as to reflect his true gender identity, but they might instead be preserved and deployed in a manner that gratifies his governingsexual fetish. Thus do we have the bizarre claim that a “trans woman” is simply a “woman” full stop, even if “she” has male genitalia.
The Cathar hatred of corporeal life and its procreation also finds parallels in the extreme environmentalist component of the wokemovement, which regards the human race as a “cancer on the planet,” and in the normalization of abortion, euthanasia, and childlessness. The Cathar condemnation of state violence for the sake of upholding law and order finds a parallel in woke calls to “defund the police” and end the “carceral state.” The Cathar eschewal of meat and dairy products finds a parallel in the contemporary vogue for moralistic veganism (in the name of animal rights or sustainability or the like). The Cathar rejection of private property finds a parallel in woke refusal to enforce laws against vagrancy and shoplifting.
Like that of the Cathars, woke rhetoric often sounds superficially peaceful. But also like the Cathars, the wokenevertheless practice coercion and even violence when they judge it useful for advancing their cause. This includes doxxingand other forms of intimidation; rioting, looting, and even occupying large areas (as in 2020’s CHAZ protest in Seattle and the siege of the federal courthouse in Portland); the shutting down of roadways and the vandalism of paintings, public statuary, and the like as routine protest tactics; the mutilation of bodies in the name of “gender identity”; and the promotion of “gender transition” even among children, along with the imposition of extreme ideological curricula, against the wishesof parents.
In general, wokeness, like Catharism, is essentially about the radical subversion of normal human life in the name of a paranoid metaphysical delusion. Like Catharism, its fashionableness has nevertheless found it support among a large segment of the wealthy and powerful. And like Catharism, its rise has been facilitated by the Church’s being in such a low state that it is unable to provide an effective counterbalance.
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The “deny-it-a-name” maneuver
As I’ve said, the religious pathology I’ve been describing has, historically, seen multiple iterations and gone under many names – Gnosticism, Marcionism, Manicheanism, Paulicianism, Bogomilism, Catharism or Albigensianism, and so on. Part of the reason for this is that, again, it is less a coherent, systematic body of doctrine than a hodgepodge of more loosely related themes and sensibilities. And part of it is also that these same themes and sensibilities can manifest in different ways depending on the larger historical and cultural context.
Here too, wokeness is similar. There is no one name that its adherents and critics agree on. The word “woke” itself is now used less frequently by the movement’s advocates than by its critics. Other labels that have been proposed include “identity politics,” “critical social justice,” “social justice politics,” “social justice warriors,” “political correctness,” and “the successor ideology,” but none has gained universal acceptance. There is also the fact that the movement encompasses many sub-movements and ideologies, each of which also often goes under multiple labels – “anti-racism,” “Critical Race Theory,” “post-colonialism,” “LGBTQ,” “gender studies,” the “transgender” movement, “fourth-wave feminism,” and so on.
But the terminological confusion also seems to be in part deliberate, a rhetorical tactic aimed at keeping the movement’s critics off-balance. And it is the flip side of a companion rhetorical tactic of subverting elements of normal human life precisely by labeling them in ways that make them seem open to challenge.
In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, philosopher John Searle characterized this latter tactic as “the give-it-a-name maneuver.” Here is an example from philosophy to illustrate how it works. Take some piece of common sense, such as the idea that we all have thoughts, desires, sensations, and other mental states. This might seem too obviously true to call any special attention to, much less to doubt. But contemporary materialist philosophers have given this piece of common sense the label “folk psychology” and characterized it as one possible “theory” alongside others (the idea being that it reflects the understanding of human psychology taken for granted by the common “folk,” but not necessarily the only possible understanding). These materialists then go about the business of asking whether there is any reason to suppose that “folk psychology” is actually correct, whether there might be some other and better “theory” of human nature, and so on. What they are really suggesting is that it might turn out that there are no such things as thoughts or minds. But this sounds preposterous, so the discussion is usually conducted instead in terms of whether or not to accept the “theory” of “folk psychology.” By way of this “give-it-a-name maneuver,” what would otherwise seem too obvious to question is thereby made to appear challengeable and even doubtful.
Wokeness often deploys the same tactic. Take, for example, the commonsense supposition that there are two sexes, male and female, and that they exist so that men and women will mate and have children. By way of novel labels like “heteronormativity” and “cisgender,” what human beings have always known to be basic biological reality is made to appear challengeable and doubtful. The tactic gives no logical reason whatsoever to doubt common sense, but rhetorically it can be very effective. Suppose some skeptic gave the label “oxygenism” to the idea that all people need to breathe air in order to stay alive, and concocted some bizarre theoretical science-fiction scenario on which people could survive some other way. Suppose he got a critical mass of people to take this suggestion seriously, and to denounce those who did not as ignorant or even bigoted. No doubt a significant number of other people would also come to take this absurdity seriously, simply because a passionate debate had been generated about whether something called “oxygenism” is really true. Inventing labels can in this way be a very powerful rhetorical tool for attacking ideas, even those that are beyond reasonable doubt.
I would suggest that, precisely for this reason, the woke have tried to prevent any labels being put on them, even as they attach novel labels to the various aspects of normal human life that they aim to subvert. For example, it has now become a stock woke tactic to pretend that there is no such thing as wokenessand that the term is a right-wing invention that has no clear meaning. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, “wokeness” is easy to define and picks out psychological and political tendencies that are manifestly all around us. I’d define it as a paranoid delusional hyper-egalitarian mindset that tends to see oppression and injustice where they do not exist or greatly to exaggerate them where they do exist.
Needless to say, the woke themselves would not agree to that particular definition, given its pejorative nature. But asScholastic philosophers know, there are at least two kinds of definition. A “nominal definition” tries to capture how a word is actually used by speakers of the language it is a part of. A “real definition” tries to capture, not the way a word is used by most speakers, but the real nature of the thing that the word refers to. For that reason, a real definition may not track the usage captured by a nominal definition. For example, a real definition of “water” given by a chemist will make reference to hydrogen and oxygen, even though many ordinary speakers of English who are able correctly to use the word “water” know nothing about hydrogen and oxygen. When I define “wokeness” the way I did above, I am not trying to give a nominal definition, but rather what I take to be the correct real definition.
In any event, as the left-wing writer Freddie deBoer has complained, the woke are in fact committed to a common set of assumptions and attitudes, so that it is disingenuous for them to pretend that the word does not correspond to any real phenomenon. He suggests that they do this as a way of trying to insulate their views from critical analysis and the give-and-take of political debate, and to make them seem instead “transcendently, obviously correct.” I think that is exactly right. Just as the woke apply a label to aspects of common sense in order to subvert them, they deny a label to their own eccentricassumptions in order to make them seem like common sense. We can call this “the deny-it-a-name maneuver,” a companion rhetorical tactic to the give-it-a-name maneuver. Its point is to make wokeness a moving target, impossible for its enemies to get a fix on.
This tactic is deployed not only when the woke falsely allege that wokeness is a right-wing invention, but also when they cynically deny that Critical Race Theory is being taught in schools, or pretend that it is merely about teaching history (claims that are easily proven false). And it is deployed when trans activists object to terms like “transgenderism” and “gender theory,” despite their being manifestly apt and even neutral labels for what the activists are pushing.
Thus does wokeness, like its Gnostic-Manichean predecessors, both lack any single agreed-upon name while also going under a bewildering variety of names. Joseph Campbell famously characterized what he took to be the archetypical hero figure who appears in the myths of various cultures as “the hero with a thousand faces.” The religious-cum-political pathology I have been describing here might aptly be labeled “the heresy with a thousand faces.”
Wokeness delenda est
One final lesson the comparison with Catharism teaches us about our present moment is that intellectual and spiritual efforts are necessary parts of the resistance to wokeness, but are unlikely to be sufficient. The Dominicans were crucial to the spiritual renewal of the Church, and their preaching was effective in freeing some souls from the illusions of Catharism. But at the end of the day, the coercive power of the state was also needed in order to break the heresy’s hold.
By no means does this entail a modern military “Crusade” against the woke. But it does entail that writing books and articles refuting woke ideas and arguments is not enough. The ideas and arguments are uniformly bad, but many people remain attached to them anyway, because the main appeal of wokenessis below the level of reason. As I have argued elsewhere, it is fueled by seething envy and ressentiment directed against the natural order of things. These spiritual pathologies make any politics rooted in them especially militant, hateful, and impervious to rational persuasion.
It is a grave mistake, then, to regard woke fanaticism as mere over-exuberance and to treat its excesses with kid gloves. Woke rioting, looting, vandalism, roadway obstruction and other forms of lawlessness must be met with police tactics and prison sentences harsh enough decisively to suppress them. This should be done with no greater severity than is necessary, but also with no less severity than is necessary.
It would also be fatally naïve to treat wokeness as simply one political tendency alongside others, to be afforded the same respect and given the same voice. It should instead be treated the way we treat Nazism, segregationism, and other ideas that are inherently destructive of basic social cohesion – as something to be purged altogether from school curricula, government, and other institutions, as well as from respectable discourse. The state, therefore, not only should not favor it, but should not even be neutral about it. Rather, governments ought actively to work to extirpate wokeness from any and all institutions over which they have any power or influence. Since such a purge is precisely what the woke intend for the non-woke, this policy yields just deserts as well as society’s self-preservation.