J. William Corrington

Good Citizenship vs. Global Citizenship:  The Life and Works of John William Corrington

Eric Voegelin once observed that the “the fish putrefies from the head.”  Thus much that creates disorder in the American body politic may be traced to the disorder of our intellectual classes.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, those classes revolted against their government’s war in Vietnam and brought that war home to the streets and campuses of America.  Presidents and Provosts of America’s colleges and universities capitulated to the demands of rioting students, many egged on by their professors, and the traditional curriculum of required courses was abandoned throughout academe. 

Contemporary college students no longer are required to study the history of Western civilization, American history and government, the classics of English literature and, since the Great Depression when classical liberalism and market economics were wiped out by progressivism and socialism, not for three quarters of a century has Economics been taught from the perspective of markets and the choices of individual actors reacting to price signals, supply and demand.

American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and forward have abdicated the first responsibility of statesmen which Aristotle taught is to pay attention to and engender “a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.” [NE, 1099b30]

Even George W. Bush, a religious apocalypse-motivated president, promoted “No Child Left Behind,” not the teaching of good citizenship in our schools and colleges.

Indeed, students today, beginning in elementary school, are taught to bear the burden of global citizenship, to be good stewards of a global environment, manifest politically correct ideals at home and bring democracy to the world. So when your ten year old returns home from school you can expect him to begin to agitate for the values of global citizenship, not the good citizenship of an American citizen.

On July 24, 2008 in Berlin, Germany Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, spoke of himself as a citizen of the United States and a proud citizen of the world. The world is more intertwined than at any time in world history, he said, and the dangers we confront cannot be contained within one country.  Carbon emissions are affecting the environment thus requiring global action. “The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”  A new secular priesthood confuses the American nation and spreads the disorder of the Enlightenment throughout the world.

A belief in the future, advancing democracy throughout the world, a New World Order,  environmentalism, sustainability and  global citizenship are all parts of a modern political religion that has obscured our understanding of good citizenship. 

Thirty-four years ago when I first encountered John William Corrington, it was difficult, as it is now, to find educated citizens, particularly in our colleges and universities, who were not infected by some political religion or another. 

So I considered it my good fortune to have found a soul mate in Bill Corrington and to have lived about twenty-five years of my life in the American south and southwest, first while in high school in Florida, in Texas at the University of Dallas, in Virginia where Yorktown University was founded and now in Colorado where Yorktown University is attempting to bring some sanity into higher education.  

As I shall observe later, I consider my growing up in an ethnic community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be equivalent in experience to growing up in those southern regions where people have a sense of limits and of place.[1]  As such, that observation is non-ideological and will, I expect, lead to some controversy among attendees of this conference for whom a rural agrarian life, or secession, has become their political religion. 

The classical definition of disorder is to act without limits because our existence is framed by the fundamental limitation of our mortality, the confines of life within historical communities and our consciousness of our humanity that is shaped by experience of transcendent divine reality.  To strive to break these bonds that define our lives in these historical communities and thrust us to aspire to a limitless future bound only by the confines of global citizenship is a source of disorder that in general afflicts modern Western culture and the United States in particular.

By the same token, the attempt to replace reality as it is given with a conservative mythical Romantic past contains ingredients of the same intellectual disorder.

John William Corrington instinctively knew that and lived an extraordinary life in which he mastered most of the instruments of Western intellectual culture to shape a political and legal philosophy, historical consciousness, works of literature, and poetry of great beauty, and an awareness of danger in the temptation for ersatz immortality that troubles modern life. That he made some money writing film scripts for Roger Corman or Procter and Gamble did not diminish his art.[2]

In 1975 Bill Corrington published an essay titled “Charles Reich and the Gnostic Vision.”[3] The serial librarian at the College of New Rochelle where I had been teaching since 1972 brought this essay to my attention and that began a twelve year friendship with Bill Corrington that lasted until his death on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 1988.

I was reminded of my obligation to Bill Corrington by Allen Mendenhall, an attorney and graduate student at Auburn University, who contacted me on January 26 of this year to say that he is researching the life of Bill Corrington and is particularly interested in “Corrington’s conservatism and the Corrington-Voegelin link.”  Attendees at this conference who are not familiar with the works of John William Corrington should read this student’s essay titled, “John William Corrington: A Literary Conservative.”[4] 

In this paper I want to sketch the broad outlines of my subject by reference to my correspondence with Bill Corrington that began with a reply from Corrington on June 17, 1976 to a letter I sent him on June 15 of that year expressing interest in his essay on Charles Reich and a desire to “co-edit a work on modern gnosticism.”

Two years later that correspondence led to a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity” conducted at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978 and, later, my collaboration with Bill and Joyce Corrington’s development of a script for a feature film based on Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order.

Discussing this encounter within the confines of this panel is a large and complicated undertaking because it includes Eric Voegelin’s early writings on ancient and modern gnosticism, his later exploration of Renaissance hermeticism and his understanding of the use of magic in the philosophy of Hegel.  And it includes the analytical and sometime pugilistic use of Voegelin’s concept of gnosticism across a range of commentary from Time Magazine, Irving Kristol[5], Flannery O’Connor, Gerhart Niemeyer,[6] Bill Corrington, my own writings on this subject[7] not to mention Melvin E. Bradford’s.[8]

It also reflects a complicated clash between literature and philosophy.  A defeated South lived in isolation from the nation at large for close to a hundred years after the Civil War.  During that time (and since)  the politics of the South was dominated by schemers, the corrupt and sociopaths. The elites that survived nourished the mythos of literature which became a substitute for political philosophy. The ante bellum South was dominated by Social Contract theories that explained that the nation was a confederation of States, that secession was permissible within the terms of a Social Contract, and which justified slavery and later segregation.

With no avenue for philosophy other than that of Locke (though Hegel had his influence, too) to develop in the South, literature became the dominant expression of the deepest longings of southern intellectuals and from that came a parade of great writers, poets, novelists, and professors of literature culminating in the New Critics.  John William Corrington was a child of that literary culture.  As such, he could never be a global citizen.  And, as we see in his personal notebooks, his encounter with the philosophy of Eric Voegelin challenged his ability to continue as a novelist.

Corrington writes:

“The problem with knowledge and experience

          Is that, sooner or later, you tend to take it seriously. When you do, it begins to

          chip away at the mythical structure out of which you create.”[9]

Global citizenship is nicely contrasted with the good citizenship embodied in Bill Corrington’s life and works in the same manner that Marion Montgomery titled his essay “Solzhenitsyn as a Southerner.”[10] 

Corrington writes in his personal notebook:

          It has been said that I am an apologist for the South. The South does not,

          and has never, needed an apologist. …

What my work really represents is the openness, the ambiguity, the vastness of the possibilities of human being in the mode of existence as it realizes itself in the South in my time.

Any work that deals with a certain place intensely is a celebration of that place.[11]

In this paper, I shall explore Montgomery’s thesis, outline the concept of gnosticism implied in the early title of Corrington’s conference paper, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” and explore the reality of Corrington’s good citizenship as a celebration of our mortality. The contrast of that with the gnostic variant of global citizenship needs no explanation to this audience.

All of us who participated in the Vanderbilt conference were deeply influenced by Eric Voegelin.  I have written about that experience in an essay titled “The Education of a Conservative Intellectual: 1960-65.” [12] From another region of the United States, Bill Corrington was ruminating among the bookshelves in the library at Tulane University where he was earning a law degree.  In those shelves he found Volume I of Order and History, titled Israel and Revelation.  When he returned home, he told his wife, “By God, he’s done it.”

What “it” was doesn’t need explaining for intellectuals cast in Bill Corrington’s mold, and that includes my own experience. 

The country into which Bill and I entered upon reaching maturity had long begun the journey away from the Western Christianitas.  In the modern era, that can be traced to the spiritual injury done to Americans by our Civil War (and a series of wars into the 21st century) and the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of Evolution that turned the hearts and minds of post Civil War Americans toward science and against the Protestant Christianity that dominated American culture at the time. Colleges that had been solidly Christian became secular in a generational “dying of the light” explained in James Burtchaell’s study of America’s religious colleges of the same title.[13]

And of course, that turning away has deep roots in the Enlightenment philosophy that imbued the American Founding and particularly the work of Thomas Jefferson.  Reason and science, understood in the restricted sense those concepts have meaning in modern culture, outline the origins of the cultural, intellectual and “religious” disorder of our times.

I place the word “religious” in quotation marks because religion as Wilfred Cantwell Smith observed is different from “faith.”[14]  The passion for religion reflects the perspective of an observer.  Faith reflects the experience of transcendent divine reality. Bill Corrington in that context was faithful.[15] 

I believe it was in that spirit that Bill and I “connected” and immediately tried to make a difference.

We began to correspond about a possible volume titled “Gnosticism and Modernity” which led to an invitation on September 1, 1976 to Eric Voegelin.  Voegelin responded on September 6:

          …when I hit on this problem, that was 25 years ago. In the meanwhile,

science in this matter has advanced. And today I would have to say that Gnosticism is one component in the historical structure of modernity but no more than one. Of equal important, it has turned out, are Apocalyptic, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Alchemy, and Magic.

Corrington commented on Voegelin’s explanation in a letter dated September 30, 1976:

If I were to define Gnosticism as widely as Voegelin does—including Hegel and Marx in it—it should be no problem to subsume these other symbolisms also. I would hope that new investigations & findings will not tend to create semantic battles in an area which has not yet made nearly enough penetration into political science as a theoretical tool to afford quibblers as to what is Gnosticism, what is hermeticism, & so on. 

Voegelin followed upon on this observation in a letter dated October 21, 1976:

The literature on Magic, Neoplatonism, Apocalyptic, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and Alchemy is growing prodigiously and can be read by anybody who cares to read it. All of these are components in the present intellectual disorder, just as is Gnosticism. On one special point, not treated sufficiently elsewhere, I have dwelled in my Ecumenic Age, that is on the transformation of mythical and revelatory symbols into ”doctrines.”

On December 6, 1976 Corrington writes:

I’ve been out of things for two weeks in order to make up for my relative ignorance of Hermetic and Alchemical literature.  I’ve gone through Mead’s thrice Greatest Hermes, all of Jung on Alchemy, Scholem’s Kaballah, Waite’s Holy Kaballah, and have re-red some of Eliade’s stuff, including the Two and the one, which leads back to the androgyny of Christ-Lapis, etc.  In any case, I have a handle on the materials. I’ve ordered Yates’ Bruno and am passing time with Boehm and Eckhart.

By December 20, 1976, Corrington and I had agreed that we would first hold a symposium on the theme “Gnosticism and Modernity.”  In a joint letter mailed to prospective participants, we wrote: 

The term “Gnosticism” should be understood, we feel, in an extended rather than in a narrow sense.  Generally, we take our inspiration from the work of Professor Eric Voegelin whose use of the concept in its generic sense includes those intellectual movements such as Hermeticism, Alchemy, Magic, Kabbalah, Rosicrucian’s, Millennialism, and certain strands of Neoplatonism and Scientism. Obviously, we are concerned with patterns of “Second Reality,” using Musil’s phrase, which tend to contract consciousness of reality.

By August 15, 1977, Corrington was deep into the paper he would present:

I’m 100 pages into the rough draft of my paper. I think it will show the indisputable nexus between Gnosticism, magic, hermeticism, & alchemy. 

An undated hand written letter accompanies the abstract of Corrington’s paper titled, “Gnosticism and Modern Thought:  A Way You’ll Never Be.” 

The final version of the paper prepared for publication is titled “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” and consists of a tour de force in which Corrington reaches into his past as a novelist, calling up the “mythical structure” on which great literature depends.

Voegelin was impressed and called it “the best paper” in a symposium that he said “was the best I have attended.”

Corrington begins by recalling Voegelin’s observation in the Ecumenic Age that “the noetic field of consciousness in which the philosophers’ debate about reality moves, was constituted by Anaximander through the …dictum: “The origin for things is the Apeiron…”

Corrington immediately moves to a counter thesis:

“…The noetic field originally differentiated by Anaximander is not the only field within the process of consciousness.  There is, in addition, the mythopoetic field…”

I would propose that the mythopoetic field, antecedent to the noetic, possesses a structure quite similar to it, and that the two fields are parallel in a number of ways.”

Corrington’s thesis is that parallel to Anaximander’s symbol of the Apeiron is the Uroboros, “the cosmic serpent or dragon often represented with its tail touching its head or in its mouth, or tightly coiled in a circle.”

Corrington argues that the mythopoetic field of consciousness has other parallels such as an equivalent Metaxy and potential “loss of balance” visible in the Hero who “rejects the sirens’ offer of a dreamlike passage back to the Pleroma ‘below,’ and the crystalline challenge to become ‘son of the sun,’ like a god.

The Gnostic personality “is unable to maintain the balance in tension” of existence and to “seek release from the disorder and confusion it experiences.” 

“The result is a speculative return from the noetic field .. to the mythopoetic field.”

Corrington’s sensitivity to mythic imagination allows him to understand that some who cannot traverse the distance between myth and philosophy may choose to return to myth and the control that choice allows: “the dragon can be pacified, the serpent monster can be slain.”  When the “imbalanced psyche seeks to break free from the disorder of reality…the psyche attempts to slay the Uroboros definitively.” 

“Such people choose, in Professor Voegelin’s phrase, to live in a certain untruth rather than in an uncertain truth.”  Corrington quotes Heraclitus “who characterized the Gnostic personality long before it came into being as such:

          To those who are awake, there is one

          ordered universe held in common by

          all, whereas in sleep each man turns

          from this cosmos to one of his own.’”

After this tour d’horizon, Corrington examines Gnostic “escape” symbols an example of which is the “Gnostic world-hatred.”  The defective world is an absolute that is “couched in purely mythopoetic terms.”  By that I think Corrington means it is an assertion, something grounded solely in will.

A second Gnostic symbol after the defective world is the hidden god, a First Man who “stands beyond the cosmos altogether, within the Uroborotic circle.

The third symbol is that of gnosis itself, “a unique insight not available to the ..psychic man, but only to the pneumatic illuminati…”

A “fourth symbol is that of the Escape from the cosmos” and a fifth is the Pleroma.  “The Pleromatic Garden, guarded by the Uroboros,” … “is one, and that one is all.”

Corrington concludes:  “these five symbols form the foundation of all classical Gnostic speculation, and that they show ‘escape’ or ‘exodus’ Gnostic thought to be a regression to an archaic mythopoetic mode of thinking in which Gnostic manipulative magic is possible..”

This “reversal constitutes fantasy-construction of the first order….”

[1] At a meeting of the Philadelphia Society where Andrew Lytle gave an excellent presentation on the Agrarians, I confronted Mr. Lytle with the observation that growing up in Pittsburgh where loyalties to neighborhood, church, family, the Pirates and Steelers were equivalent to growing up in Agrarian south.  He did not agree.

[2] At Yorktown University I counsel younger scholars who have no prospects for attaining employment as tenured scholars at traditional institutions to seek employment teaching online. Do whatever is necessary to support your scholarly research.  That is an example that Bill Corrington established for our community of traditional scholars.

[3] New Orleans Review, Vol. 5 (1), 1975.

[4] http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/05/john-william-corrington-a-literary-conservative

[5] Irving Kristol, Reflections of A Neo-Conservative, Basic Books, 1986.

[6] “Loss of Reality: Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism,” Modern Age, Fall 1978, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 338-335.

[7] “Hegel and Classical Philosophy,” in Modern Age Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 126—134;  “The Problem of Carlyle’s Religion,” in The Good Man in Society: Active Contemplation edited by Gueguen, Henry & Rhodes (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), pp. 75-90; “Civil Religion and American Foreign Policy” in The Hillsdale Review (spring, 1981), Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 3-11; “Wilson, Croly and the American Civil Religion,” in Modern Age Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 33-38; “Modern Political Religions” in The Development of Political Theory, Dallas, 1978 (online at http://dontquitu.com/theorybook/browse.htm;“Carlyle’s Political Religion,” The Journal of Politics Vol. 38, No. 1 (February 1976), pp. 95-113; “Carlyle’s Political Religion and 19th Century Gnosticism,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1971.

[8] Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric, Modern Age, Winter 1979, pp. 10-24.

[9] Lloyd Halliburton, The Man Who Slept with Women: John William Corrington’s Shad Sentell,” Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 27, p. 664.

[10] Marion Montgomery, “Solzhenitsyn as a Southerner,” in Clyde N. Wilson and Andrew Lytle, ed. Why the South Will Survive by Fifteen Southerners, University of Georgia Press, 1981.

[11]Lloyd Halliburton, The Man Who Slept with Women: John William Corrington’s Shad Sentell, Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 27, p. 664.

[12] “The Education of a Conservative Intellectual: 1960-65, Modern Age, Spring, 1998, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 148-160.”

[13] James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, Erdmans, 1998.

[14] Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them, Oxford, 1998 and The Meaning and End of Religion (1962).

[15] His dying words were, “It’s alright.”