Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Plotinus 02 (Bust) I. Let us begin with two writers from the period of Roman Imperial decline, a phase in the history of Mediterranean Civilization that one might justly describe as a factory – working on double-shift – of apocalyptic ideas and eclectic religious innovations. Both Plotinus (204-270) and Augustine (354-430), the former an adherent of the Platonic School of philosophy and the latter a Platonizing Christian who had belonged for ten years to the most organized of the Gnostic sects, commented extensively on the Gnostics. Plotinus’ treatise Against the Gnostics bears appositely on its object in that Gnostic writers like Valentinus (100-160) ransacked elements of the original Platonism in building their syncretic systems, while at the same time attacking basic tenets of the original, positive Platonism; it is likely that Plotinus had the Valentinians particularly in mind in making his discussion. The zenith of Valentinian Gnosticism, considered as an active movement, indeed coincides with Plotinus’ heyday as a teacher in Rome. Augustine, a driven religious seeker, sojourned among the Manichaeans as an auditor during the decade from 374 to 384; but he later rejected Manichaeism on the basis of Platonic argument. Eventually, Platonic logic being his way station, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

The texts of Plotinus and Augustine tell posterity that Gnosticism long remained tenaciously and aggressively implicated in the fabric of Late Antique society, against whose existing institutions and convictions the devotees of Gnosis (“Secret Knowledge”) pitted themselves in an often fanatically gainsaying manner. This was the case, moreover, no matter what form their organization took and no matter what the specific tenets of their sect, which could differ widely within the genre. There is something noticeably parasitic about Gnosticism, which plagiarizes from what it condemns and excuses itself from its own precepts. As for Plotinus – he also interests us as a source for Gnosticism and a judgment on it because he harbored intense suspicion about Christianity, in respect of which, like his contemporary Celsus, he reserved no friendliness or comity; therefore when the Plotinian judgment of Gnosticism parallels the Augustinian, after the Saint’s conversion, the similarity indicates an objective, a true, or let us say, at the very least, a plausible assessment of the thing at issue.

Remarkably, Plotinus associates Gnosticism with economic resentment, attributing to the sectarians the disposition that, “Wealth and poverty, and all the inequalities of that order are made ground of complaint.” Plotinus notes by way of sane counterargument that, “This is to ignore that the Sage demands no equality in such matters,” because “he cannot think that to own many things is to be richer or that the powerful have the better of the simple.” (Mackenna’s translation, as throughout) The Gnostics, in Plotinus’ description, ascribe, to certain kinds of difference, an evil character, interpreting those differences as signs that the maker of this world must have created it through an intention evil in itself, hence also supremely reprehensible and a fit object of resentment and rebellion. In condemning Creation, the Gnostics likewise condemn the Creator. Plotinus therefore refers to the Gnostics as “those… that censure the constitution of the Cosmos” and who “do not understand what they are doing or where this audacity leads them.”

Gnostic Tetrads

Logically, seeing that they belong to the universe, if the Gnostics judged the universe wicked, as they did, the judgment would implicate them. But Gnostic thinking evades logic. The Gnostic sees in himself a radical self-legitimizing exception, a rare instance of positive difference tantamount to election. On this topic Plotinus remarks: “Their own soul, the soul of the least of mankind, they declare deathless, divine; but the entire heavens and the stars within the heavens have had no communion with the Immortal Principle, though these are far purer and lovelier than their own souls – yet they are not blind to the order, the shapely pattern, the discipline prevailing in the heavens, since they are the loudest in complaint of the disorder that troubles our earth.”

Plotinus, like his revered Plato, understood the natural order as hierarchical. The cosmos for Plotinus is intelligible because it corresponds to an intelligent design, implying in turn an intelligent – hence also a morally benevolent – designer. Plotinus emphatically equates the intelligent, that is to say the articulate and self-consistent, with the good, and he insists on the unity of existence. In the Plotinian formula: “The Good, the Principle, is simplex, and, correspondingly, primal”; and “it is an integral Unity.” In this, Plotinus follows Plato.  The cosmos being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency; and likewise the divine principle being one and whole, it cannot be in a state of war with itself, or in a state of deficiency. Nor can the cosmos, because it derives from the divine principle, be in a state of war with the divine principle. Once again in the formula: “When we speak of the One and when we speak of the Good we must recognize an identical nature.”

In making these assertions, Plotinus remains in consistency with the fundamental law of logic and ontology: Namely that a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be; and that a thing cannot simultaneously both be, that which it is and not be, that which it is. Plotinus accuses the Gnostics of fudging the distinctions among Creation, Nature, and Art. Concerning cosmo-genesis, he writes, “Either the process is in the order of Nature or against that order.” In these words Plotinus joins himself not only to Platonic tradition, but to the cosmological tradition going all the way back to Hesiod, for whom it is self-evident that existence must be identical with itself and for whom again rebellion against order is nothing less than petulant egocentrism.

Plotinus judges Gnostic discourse to be willfully redundant in its procedures – it multiplies principles unnecessarily so as to circumvent identity – and thus also to be an insuperable logical scandal. Yet Plotinus objects to Gnosticism just as much on esthetic grounds as on purely logical ones, the Gnostic systems appearing to him as grossly inelegant precisely because of their constant recourse to “superfluous distinctions.” These latter, the “superfluous distinctions,” belong to Gnostic censure of the cosmos in that they express the sectarian’s “grudge of any share with one’s fellows,” even where it concerns normative agreement about objective matters. It follows that the Gnostic is relentless in his “pursuit of advantage” over those who fault his premises or point out flaws in his reasoning. In this last observation Plotinus ascribes to Gnosticism the antinomian character remarked by all commentary subsequent to his own. Smug Superiority The illuminatus, in Plotinus’ words, “Carps at Providence and the Lord of Providence.” So too the illuminatus “scorns every law known to us,” while of “immemorial virtue and all restraint” he “makes… a laughing stock, lest any loveliness be seen on earth.” The doctrine of the illuminatus, making use of sarcasm and denunciation, “cuts at the root of all orderly living.” Or as Plotinus says of the illuminati, “They know nothing good here,” for to acknowledge goodness would be to disavow total moral superiority.

Plotinus notices that the Gnostics avoid giving definitions or explanations. Thus while the Gnostics claim moral superiority to other people, they disdain any discussion of virtue: “We are not told [by the illuminati] what virtue is or under what different kinds it appears; there is no word of all the numerous and noble reflections upon it that have come down to us from the ancients.” If anyone were to inquire directly of the Gnostics about these matters, the Gnostics would reply with their cryptic, “Look to God.” The Gnostic exclusion of the literary archive is particularly striking. In addition to being antinomian and anticosmic in their disposition, the Gnostics, as Plotinus describes them, are also anti-historical. The phrase, “Look to God,” irritates Plotinus because God, in his understanding, is rational and provides definitions and explanations, at least by indirection, through his works. Plato’s dialogues, which Plotinus has studied, are famous for Socrates’ insistence on defining terms precisely.

Oculus Visor

II. When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience, the secret knowledge that the word Gnosis denotes. Such proprietary knowledge they specifically refuse to share with outsiders because possession of it – or the claim to possess it, for that is all that the outsider has on which to base his judgment concerning the claimant – is what differentiates the illuminati from the vulgate. Indeed, the secret knowledge cannot be shared, not even should someone in possession of it feel moved to share it. Thus by virtue (so to speak) of their secret knowledge, the Gnostics consider themselves elect; they are ontologically different from and elevated above ordinary people. Gnostics are thus an extreme in-group phenomenon. Under this conviction of supreme differentiation, they “proceed to assert that Providence cares for them alone.” When the Hidden God abolishes the corrupt world, only those whose being has been transfigured by secret knowledge will remain, and they, too, shall be as gods. Compared to those in whom the secret knowledge does not reside, and who are therefore not transfigured, the illuminati are already as gods. They may mock and revile their ontological inferiors – and invariably they do so.

We have remarked that Plotinus discerns in the Gnostic disposition several types of resentment: Envy of standing and wealth in the social order, with a concomitant and hypocritical advantage-seeking; jealously against the structure of existence, and disdain for the past and for its inheritance in the present. Correlated with “despising the world and all that is in it,” as Plotinus remarks, is the Gnostic orientation to a post-apocalyptic future in whose realization all attitudes contrary to the Gnostic attitude shall be humiliated and banished while the Gnostic antipathy to tradition will be justified in a triumph. Plotinus writes of the Gnostics that, “All they care for is something else [than the structure of existence in the present] to which they will at some future time apply themselves.”

It might surprise modern readers that Plotinus, a mystic of the Neo-Platonic school, should defend the goodness of the material world, but this surprise would stem from an unfortunate modern misconception about Plato and Platonism. For Plato, as for Plotinus, existence has distinguishable aspects – the sensible and the intelligible – but these aspects belong to a unitary whole. Platonism is not dualism, nor is it world-rejection, despite what Friedrich Nietzsche claims in The Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.

Addressing the Gnostic loathing for physical reality, Plotinus poses rhetorically, “Who that truly perceives the harmony of the Intellectual Realm [the Ideas] could fail, if he has any bent towards music, to answer to the harmony in sensible sounds?” Likewise, Plotinus asks, “What geometrician or arithmetician could fail to take pleasure in the symmetries, correspondences, and principles of order observed in visible things?” Plotinus claims that the Gnostics harbor hatred even for the cosmetic beauty of comely individuals: “Now if the sight of beauty excellently reproduced upon a face hurries the mind to that other Sphere [the Intellectual Realm], surely no one seeing the loveliness lavish in the world of sense – this vast orderliness, the Form which the stars even in their remoteness display – no one could be so dull-witted, so immovable, as not to be carried by all this recollection, and gripped by reverent awe in the thought of all this, so great, sprung from that greatness.” To revile beauty, a proclivity which Plotinus ascribes to the Gnostics, would be consistent with their attitude of “censure.”

Hillary Smug

One remarks the elevation of the commonplace to the level of significance implicit in Plotinus’ words – even the ordinary participates in the cosmic order and therefore justifies the contemplation of it. A certain intellectual democracy is also implicit in the same words, for according to the gist of them non-philosophers, when they respond to cosmetic beauty or the sublimity of nature, respond indeed to the same supernal order as that studied in a more sophisticated way by the philosopher. The ground of philosophy consists in the average person’s openness to reality, his vulnerability to beauty: “The very experience out of which Love arises.” In spurning that experience, and that openness, the illuminati exhibit, as Plotinus puts it, “the perverse pride of despising what was once admired.”

According to Plotinus, Gnostics argue that, “They see no difference between beautiful and ugly forms of body.” It should strike no one, therefore, as unexpected that Gnostics also, in Plotinus’ words, “make no distinction between the ugly and the beautiful in conduct.” This remark communicates with the other, earlier remark in Plotinus’ treatise – the one concerning Gnostic evasiveness about defining virtue. To deny beauty in one aspect of existence, the corporeal, is, in principle, to deny it in all other aspects of existence, as for instance in the moral aspect. To equivocate about quality and degree is, moreover, to attack the connection between hierarchy and order, while at the same time establishing a new, crude hierarchy. In this reactionary conception of and response to hierarchy, one difference alone is paramount: The election of the elite minority, guaranteed by their secret knowledge, over against the damnation of the preterit majority. Plotinus need not be referring to the bearing of individuals, but merely to the doctrine in and of itself, when he invokes the word “arrogant” as a label appropriate to Gnosticism.

Although Plotinus never directly remarks the aggressiveness of the illuminati, the existence of his treatise implies it. Plotinus ran a type of school or college, in whose precincts he lectured on the Platonic philosophy. In the Third Century, Platonism functioned in many ways like a religion or as a coherent ethical system, as did also Stoicism and (increasingly) Christianity. In Against the Gnostics, Plotinus is apparently responding formally to disputatious Gnostic infiltration of his lectures, with disruptive objections and derailing pseudo-inquiries during the question-and-answer.

We can understand such aggression as belonging to the inherent intolerance of Gnostic believers for any interpretation of reality other than their own, an intolerance made worse by the lack of originality in Gnostic doctrine, which appropriates elements of established doctrine and crudely reverses them. By obliterating the model, the sectarian may better advertise his derivative as original. This obliteration of the original is, by the way, the modus operandi of Islam, which, fiercely anti-historical, attempts always and everywhere to destroy any and every vestige of the non-Islamic past. It is entirely possible that Islam is a surviving offspring of Late-Antique Gnosticism. Islam has roots in two Christian heresies that exhibited Gnostic tendencies – Sabellianism and Monophysitism. The Islamic scriptural convention of abrogation, whereby a later Koranic verse abolishes an earlier one, is paradigmatically Gnostic.

Plotinus employs an elaborate metaphor to sum up the hypocrisy, as he sees it, of Gnostic anticosmic complaint. It is as though, he writes, “two people inhabit one stately house,” the house, of course, being the cosmos itself. One of these inhabitants, grumbling about the house, “declaims against its plan and against its Architect, but none the less retains his residence in it.” In doing so, “the malcontent imagines himself to be wiser” than his co-dweller; and he thinks of his inability “to bear with necessity” as a higher wisdom. Plotinus’ word, “necessity,” means the structure of existence, as it is given. The grumbler execrates “the soulless stone and timber” out of which the house is constructed. As for the co-dweller, he “makes no complaint,” but rather he “asserts the competency of the Architect.” Plotinus attributes to the disgruntled inhabitant a type of dissimulated envy, “a secret admiration for the beauty of those same ‘stones,’” whose supposed soullessness and degraded materiality he so volubly and inveterately deplores.

Augustine 01

III. To move from Plotinus to Augustine entails the elision of complex chapters in the history of Mediterranean civilization. Repeated crises of civil war and cataclysms of the economy led to Diocletian’s drastic reform of the Empire. Diocletian (reigned 284-305) divided the Empire into a Latin western half and a Greek eastern half – which included Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia – each of which was ruled by its own “Augustus” or emperor. Diocletian greatly expanded the administrative bureaucracy and attempted a universal price-freeze to combat inflation of the currency. When new civil wars destroyed the viability of Diocletian’s arrangement, governance of the whole empire shifted to the East, a process accelerated when Constantine the Great (like Diocletian of Balkan origin) made himself sole emperor in 324. During this same politically turbulent period the movements of the German tribes began in earnest, requiring constant military operations along the Rhine and Danube and in Gaul and the Balkans.

During the lifetime of Plotinus, the public religiosity of the Roman upper classes West and East took the form of syncretism, as typified by the eclectic piety of the emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222-235). Alexander maintained a private chapel in which he displayed – quoting from John Ferguson’s Religions of the Roman Empire (1970) – “a series of statues which included the deified emperors, revered spirits like Apollonius of Tyana, Christ, Abraham, Orpheus and all the others of that character.” According to Ferguson, Alexander “wanted to build a temple to Christ and enthrone him among the other gods.”

If syncretism, which Alexander’s chapel so paradigmatically bodied forth, were a seeming mélange, then the same syncretism in its generous plurality, its willingness to see divinity in all its many and differing guises, would also point to increasingly thematic monotheism, the other great trait of Late Antique religiosity. It is not so much a paradox as it appears to be. Even before the Christianizing reign of Constantine, who became on his deathbed the first (putatively) Christian Emperor, the Imperial Cult showed signs of constituting itself a type of pagan monotheism, with the one god being emblematized as a solar divinity, Sol Invictus. Personal religion began to focus on the ideas of spiritual redemption and establishing a direct, I-Thou relation to the deity. The proliferating “Mystery Cults” and the singular salvation-cult of Christianity give main expression to this religious development during the period.

Manichaean Auditors Feeding Illuminatus

Augustine of Hippo, otherwise Saint Augustine, born in the North African city of Thagaste, came to maturity in an age of religious innovation amidst the dissolution of many old forms of spirituality and against the background of political and social turmoil in the West. Augustine would die a victim of plague during the Vandal siege of Hippo, North Africa, where he was Bishop, in 430. Augustine appears in his self-account, The Confessions, as a wastrel who gradually grew aware of his own degraded status and began to seek the redemption of his soul. He ignored the influence of his Catholic mother, the saintly Monica, and at first, in his early twenties, attached himself as a lay follower to the then dominant form of Gnostic dualism, the synthetic religion known as Manichaeism, after its Iranian founder Mani (216-276).

Manichaeism appealed to Augustine – as Valentinian Gnosis had appealed to intellectuals of the previous century – in part because of its doctrinal complexity. Baroque pseudo-veracity, offering itself as a system to be mastered, exercises attraction on the type of person who wants, as Augustine says of himself, “to be thought elegant and urbane.” Augustine remarks that his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius had awakened in him an interest in philosophical systems. Philosophy, Augustine reminds his readers, means the love of wisdom. Nevertheless many intellectually unformed people, in hoping to be taken for philosophers, mistake doctrine for wisdom. There are gurus (so to speak) who “seduce through philosophy… using it to color and adorn their own errors.” Such were the teachings of Mani to the young and ambitious student of rhetoric and law in Carthage. The Bible, known to Augustine through the influence of Monica, appeared to him at the time, in contrast to philosophical discourse, to be deficient in style, a mere “sort of aid to the growth of little ones.”

Yet oddly the names of Jesus Christ and the Paraclete figured prominently in the treatises of the Manichaeans, who promised to reveal the secret meanings of such figures to initiates. The Manichaeans claimed uniquely to possess “Truth, Truth,” as Augustine writes, “and were forever speaking the word to me.” Even more than did Valentinian Gnosis, Manichaeism borrowed profligately from already-existing systems – from Judaism and Christianity, to be sure, but also from Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Buddhism, the various Mystery religions, and the old Babylonian theology. Mani, like Mohammed a few centuries later, claimed status as final prophet whose visions put all previous revelations in their proper, purely subordinate place. “Glowing fantasies,” “the fantasies of the Manichaeans,” and “tedious fables”: Augustine uses these terms in The Confessions to classify the contents of the “numerous and vast books” that constituted Manichaean scripture.

Plotinus discerned in the Valentinian Gnostics and their writings the traits of an anticosmic attitude as well as of an obsessive antinomianism; he also grasped that Gnosticism was unoriginal, borrowing from established schools while simultaneously denouncing the sources from which it borrowed. Augustine makes similar observations, using a rhetorical structure resembling Plotinus’ parable of the house with two dwellers. Augustine notes that the Manichaeans constantly addressed the Old Testament, not in admiration, but for the sake of condemning the Patriarchs. If a Patriarch had many wives, then the Manichaeans, who abhor procreation, would revile him; if another Patriarch were at first willing to offer human sacrifice, then the Manichaeans would revile him, even though he relented, as God commanded, and afterwards foreswore the practice. For the Manichaeans any goodness save their own is intolerable. Only the revelation of the final prophet can constitute a precedent, as absurd as that proposition sounds.

Augustine writes: “It is as if a man in an armory, not knowing what piece goes on what part of the body, should put a grieve on his head and a helmet on his shin and complain because they did not fit. Or again, as if, in a house, he sees a servant handle something that the butler is not permitted to touch, or when something is done behind the stable that would be prohibited in a dining room, and then a person should be indignant that in one house and one family the same things are not allowed to every member of the household.” This passage captures by metaphor the essentially plundering and resentful character of Gnosticism, which finds every inherited injunction intolerable. Tearing down the institutions, the Gnostic then tries to build new institutions, suiting his own whims, by reassembling the pieces. The result is like a modern sculpture put together according to the aesthetic of “found objects” or asserting the supremacy of a political notion. It is merely an obscene joke.

Ugly Modern Sculpture

IV. Augustine’s plausible representations of the Manichaeans in The Confessions indicate in respect of those sectarians the same hatred of inherited custom and established social hierarchy that Plotinus attributed to his Gnostics, the Valentinians. The devotees of Valentinus regarded the material world as intrinsically and unalterably corrupt. They fervently desired that world’s abolition, after which the pure of heart would be reunited in a kingdom of supernal light known as the Pleroma, or “Fullness.” Plotinus writes, “These teachers, in their contempt for this creation and this earth, proclaim that another earth has been made for them into which they are to enter when they depart.” The Confessions make it clear that Augustine would like to see the world improved, but he knows that human behavior is stubborn and that it takes historical ages for a new moral order to take hold. Preaching long-term patience with the crooked timber of humanity, Augustine cites the Old Testament. Before he heard differently from God, for example, Abraham would have understood the offering of a child in sacrifice as ordinary religious practice, which it was in the Bronze Age almost everywhere. The Manichaeans, by contrast, exhibit hysteric impatience both with secular recalcitrance and with the crooked timber of humanity. There is one dispensation, theirs, and not holding to it can be charged against an individual even though he had the misfortune to live before the dispensation could be published. The Manichaeans agitated for apocalypse now, the fundamental transformation of a way of life, to coin a phrase.

In addition to describing Manichaean resentment against moral models from the pre-Manichaean past and Manichaean irritation over the refusal of existence to transform itself, immediately, according to the sectarian program, Augustine also describes the emphatically hierarchical structure of the Manichaean church, with its laity, its lower elite, and its higher elite. Hierarchy is evil when it is someone else’s hierarchy, but good when it is one’s own. To the Manichaean laity, to the auditores among whom Augustine belonged, indeed befell the obligation to support the lower elite and the higher elite of perfecti or “saints.” The practice required the auditores, for example, actually to feed the lower and higher elites. Now belonging to the Manichaean anticosmic attitude were the tenets that this world is beyond salvage in its wickedness and that all human activity (not only procreation) is evil. Thus Manichaeism condemned the simple act of harvesting wheat or gathering fruit as intolerable violence. Yet the perfecti must eat. How then should they acquire their meals? Other, lesser mortals must do it for them.

As he embraced further the Manichaean view of existence, making its eccentric customs his own, Augustine, as he writes, “was led on to such follies as to believe that a fig tree wept when it was plucked and that the sap of the mother tree was tears.” Augustine continues: “Notwithstanding this, if a fig was plucked not by his own but by another man’s wickedness, some Manichaean saint might eat it, digest it in his stomach, and breathe it out again in the form of angels. Indeed, in his prayers, he would assuredly groan and sigh forth particles of God, although these particles of the most high and true God would have remained bound in that fig unless they had been set free by the teeth and belly of some elect saint.”

Trapped in Hell

Augustine famously argued a point that would become Catholic dogma, namely that evil is not a substance. Augustine formulated this principle in consequence of his sojourn as a Manichaean auditor, for according to Manichaeism matter as such is inherently and unalterably evil. This thesis, that evil is not a substance, stems from the Platonic (also the Biblical) conviction that existence, the Creation of a divine Creator, is good. Since matter belongs to creation, matter is likewise good; and the body, material in its basis, is therefore good. For the Manichaeans, in common with other Gnostics, the material world is the false creation of an inferior usurper-god who sabotaged the perfect immaterial creation of the actual unseen God. When the sabotage occurred, some “particles” of light from the disrupted immaterial world became imprisoned in the false, dark, material world.

During his Manichaean phase Augustine thought of the God-man relation in this way: “I still supposed that thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a bright and vast body and that I was a particle of that body.” It was surprisingly through the study physics and astronomy that Augustine came to reject the Manichaean theory of matter: Science explained the character of the physical world better than theosophy did; science also proclaimed a beautiful order in the material realm, which one sensible of beauty could not but admire. On this basis, by a long chain of intermediate syllogisms, Augustine could at last reconcile himself with existence and repudiate the anticosmic attitude: As “whatsoever is, is good,” it follows that “evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.”

Augustine’s skepticism concerning Manichaean doctrine began to develop halfway through his decade as an auditor. The break with the Manichaeans came when a renowned Manichaean perfect named Faustus made a visit to Carthage. Other auditores promised Augustine that Faustus would be able to put to rest the many questions that he had stored up over the years with respect to doctrine. We recall that Plotinus criticized the Gnostics for their evasiveness in response to specific questions about their creed, refusing to give explanations or definitions. Augustine’s remarks about Faustus gain interest in connection with what Plotinus remarks concerning the Valentinians. At first, Augustine took some pleasure in the eloquence of the speaker: “Yet it was a source of annoyance to me that, in his lecture room, I was not allowed to introduce and raise any of those questions that troubled me, in a familiar exchange of discussion with him.”

Manichaean Priests

Augustine exposes the fraudulence of the lecturer in a charitable way, stating that personally he liked Faustus who “had a heart.” Faustus was not, after all, “ignorant of his own ignorance.” Faustus “modestly did not dare to undertake the task,” of answering Augustine’s questions, “for he was aware that he had no knowledge of these things and was not ashamed to confess it.” Augustine writes, “The zeal with which I had plunged into the Manichaean system was checked.” The two just-quoted passages shed light on one another. The interdiction against questions protects the shoddiness of the doctrine. Many of the adherents do not even bother to master the details of the doctrine, but rely on emotional advocacy. No wonder then that they shy from “familiar exchange.”

The accounts of Gnosticism – in its Valentinian and Manichaean varieties – as given more than a century apart by Plotinus and Augustine show numerous similarities and are generally convergent. In both accounts, the Gnostics appear as radically alienated from existence, a mood or tone that expresses itself in anticosmic dogmas and revilement of norms. Both accounts represent the Gnostics as constituting an aggressive cultic in-group that defines itself through relentless denunciation of received custom and traditional belief. Both accounts mention the reluctance of the convicted to allow questions, even while the same illuminati demand that adherents of settled custom and traditional belief justify their positions. Both representations also call attention to the attitude of haughty superiority of the illuminati with respect to the out-group. In a subsequent essay I will examine the extent to which the Gnostic documents, themselves, confirm these characterizations.

Annuit Coeptis

Afterthoughts, 2015: It has been some years since this essay first appeared at The Brussels Journal. I have inserted a few additional remarks in the text but otherwise have left it unaltered. Nevertheless, certain observations made in passing and left undeveloped solicit continuation. I wrote, for example, that, “There is something noticeably parasitic about Gnosticism, which plagiarizes from what it condemns.” Gnosticism is mimetic. It copies the “forms” of the host society to which it has attached itself and from which it takes nourishment. Gnosticism’s signature rhetorical gesture is to wrest primacy from the host-society or its dominant religion, which it does through incessant propaganda to the effect that the model is a copy and the copy a model. Thus the two Testaments of the Bible become, in Gnostic discourse, falsifications of a metaphysical original that is absolutely primary and whose absolute primacy usurps all competing claims. Such a usurpation of the model is itself mimetic: It mirrors the claim of the New Testament to complete and consummate the Old Testament; but it is important that in Nicene Christianity the New Testament never abolishes the Old Testament. Some ultra-puritanical sects of Christianity did disdain the Old Testament, just as they disdained the entirety of Pagan learning. It is fortunate that the cooler heads of what became Orthodoxy prevailed.

One may glean something of the character of the Gnostic re-interpretation of Scripture in descriptive remarks by the heresiologist Irenaeus (died 202 AD), who comments on Gnostic rhetoric concerning God’s act of Creation in Genesis. Irenaeus writes that the Gnostics “say that the Demiurge imagined that he created all these things [i.e., everything that exists] of himself, while he in reality made them in conjunction with the productive power of Achamoth.” In Gnostic doctrine, Achamoth is a female spirit of material fecundity, who loans her capacity to the Demiurge, a figure borrowed by the Gnostics from Plato’s cosmology in the Timaeus. Irenaeus writes, summarizing Gnostic doctrine: “He formed the heavens, yet was ignorant of the heavens; he fashioned man, yet knew not man; he brought to light the earth, yet had no acquaintance with the earth; and, in like manner, they declare that he was ignorant of the forms of all that he made, and knew not even of the existence of his own mother, but imagined that he himself was all things.”

Tyrell Pyramid

Reality, then, seen as Creation, is but a botched creation; and the Creator himself is an incompetent cretin who in his simplicity can form no idea of his own radical limitation. The things that this cretinous creator creates are superior to their maker in that they can make a theme of their relation to him but he cannot make a theme of his to them (“he fashioned man, yet knew not man”). In the case of man in particular, the creature knows that his fashioner mismade him, leaving him in deficit of what he can conceive himself to be. Thus Gnosticism, in its reversal of the good cosmo-genesis of Biblical tradition, constitutes itself as a superman-doctrine. Not only are Gnostic illuminati superior to “ordinary” men and women, but they are superior to the sub-god whose incompetence condemns them to the tribulation of their bodily and spiritual deformation. Gnostics know this and ordinary men and women do not. This very knowledge holds out the magic possibility of total cosmic transfiguration, beginning with the self-transfiguration of the illuminatus, in both body and spirit.

Despite their unusual acuity in discerning the psychic and cultural deformations of the modern regime, Traditionalists (yes, even they) rarely break through to the insight that the proliferating new privileged minorities of the modern liberal accommodationist regime are supermen, but they are. These classes of supermen derive their status and their privileges moreover from the fact, as they see it, of their self-transfiguration. The most obvious case – much in the news lately – is that of the so-called trans-gendered. Sexual self-mutilation powerfully fascinates the modern liberal imagination, as the subject, invariably putting himself on display, “identifies” with an image of himself or herself other than the one given to him by the natural accident of his or her birth, and attempts to alter the born body according to the contrary image. Impressive resources, financial, surgical, and pharmaceutical facilitate the putative transition from one sex to another. Usage of the word gender obfuscates the absurdity of the sex-change claim, sex being genetically determined, as science, which liberals otherwise deferentially acknowledge, affirms. Prisoner-felons demand sex-change therapy, including surgery, and the liberal regime caters to their demands.

Tyrell Logo

In some cases, the mere subjective “identification” is sufficient, by itself, to obligate institutions to reorganize themselves for the convenience of the “identifiers.” Secondary schools in the public school-systems have been forced to install “gender-neutral” lavatory facilities, or to admit males identifying as females (rarely females identifying as males) to opposite-sex toilets. See here: “A transgender teenager, who was born male but identifies as a female, can continue to use a women’s restroom and locker room at a Jefferson County Public School. In a 5-to-1 vote, an appeal board upheld Atherton High School’s nondiscrimination policy Thursday, which states the school must accept the gender identity each student asserts and shouldn’t discriminate on the use of school space on the basis of gender identity nor gender expression.” ( 26 September 2014) Wherever any party cavils over such accommodations, the identifier immediately becomes a culture-hero of the narrative.

In Part IV of the original essay I quoted a passage from Augustine’s Confessions about the dietary hypocrisy of the Manichaeans. The Manichaean elect disdained to commit any violence, even to the plucking of fruit from trees, but as they needed to eat, they ate fruit plucked by the hands of others. It was the obligation of the auditores of the sect literally to feed the elect. It is no different under the modern liberal regime, which, as many have noted, shows the symptoms of the Gnostic deformation. Recently in Oregon, a family bakery owned by conscientious Christians came under a lawsuit when a lesbian couple, who could at no inconvenience have gone elsewhere, decided that their righteousness trumped the deeply held beliefs of the bakers that enjoined them from participating in what they regarded as a mockery of marriage. The Oregonian Gnostocrats who facilitated the lawsuit and sat in judgment on the defendants ruled in effect that the Thirteenth Amendment, which bans involuntary servitude, does not apply to men and women of Christian conscience – who must labor for the new supermen at the whim of the latter, willy-nilly. To refuse is to risk ruination through punitive confiscation of property and money hence also loss of livelihood for whole families.  Feed me!

Jabba Fed by Leia

I noted in the original essay that, “Remarkably, Plotinus associates Gnosticism with economic resentment.” Plotinus’ claim supports the critical contention that political modernity, beginning with the Jacobins and finding full articulation in Marxism and Leninism, is, in itself, a form of Gnosticism. Now Gnosticism rebels against the constitution of reality. Wherever the social reality constitutes itself by a conscious effort to conform to the pre-given cosmic reality, Gnosticism loathes the social result as much as it loathes the cosmic model. When Marxists attack exchange as theft and oppression, they are attacking the pre-given cosmic reality indirectly. Exchange is a human response to human nature, which is given. Of course, Marx actually believed that philosophy could “change the world,” a purely magical conception, but one in accord with the Gnostic view that reality is at most tentative. Societies that acknowledge the givenness of human nature also acknowledge the givenness of nature, whose order they endeavor to reflect.

One can see Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proto-revolutionary statement in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1754) as Gnostic. Rousseau writes: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’” The passage shares the theme of a botched creation with many a Gnostic pamphlet of the Second Century. Like those passages, Rousseau’s indictment of the constituted order based on property is powerfully resentment-fueled. The passage is essentially antecedent to The Communist Manifesto (1848), which Voegelin identifies as Gnostic.

I also noted in the original essay that, “For the Manichaeans any goodness save their own is intolerable”; and “only the revelation of the final prophet can constitute a precedent.” In a related observation, I noted that, “Mani, like Mohammed a few centuries later, claimed status as final prophet whose visions put all previous revelations in their proper, purely subordinate place.” I noted finally that the Gnostic, in building his system, typically “appropriates elements of established doctrine and crudely reverses them”; and that Islam resembles Gnosis to the extent that the “obliteration of the original is [its] modus operandi,” Islam being “fiercely anti-historical, [attempting] always and everywhere to destroy any and every vestige of the non-Islamic past.” Islam, like the varieties of Gnosticism, builds its doctrinal Jenga-tower bric-à-brac with plundered bits of savagely suppressed non-Islamic and pre-Islamic systems.

Bamiyan Budhas

Generically, Islam resembles Gnosis; Islam resembles Manichaeism specifically in being crudely dualistic. Mani’s cosmic conflict between Light and Darkness finds reproduction in Islam’s bloody and aggressive division of humanity into those who have submitted and those who have not. The latter incense the Muslim sensibility precisely because they remind it that there is a past before Islam which undermines the claim that the Koran is primordial. It is thus necessary in Islam to annihilate all evidence of a past before Islam, including the slaughter of intransigent “infidels,” whose habits and opinions attest to that past. Everyone literate in current events remembers the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the bulldozing of the pre-Islamic past is a day-to-day occurrence in Saudi Arabia, and has been for a long, long time. The essential claim of Islam, that Mohammed is the last and therefore the authoritative prophet, is already, however, a type of bulldozing. It is an ideological attempt to subvert the unalterable chronological fact that Mohammed, supposing that existed, was late – and that his competitors were early.

Just as Islam resembles Manichaeism, so liberalism resembles Islam. It should – because liberalism and Islam are Gnostic. The same anti-historicism that so powerfully characterizes Islam also characterizes liberalism, whose representative elites describe themselves as “the ones we have been waiting for” and attempt the enactment of what they call fundamental transformation. As I once pointed out (again, some years ago) in an article at The Orthosphere, the liberal terms “transformation” and “change” mean in practice destruction – the destruction specifically of any trace of inherited tradition whether it is the school curriculum, the calendar of civic holidays, or immemorial institutions such as marriage and the family. The attitude of liberalism is the same as the attitude of Gnosticism in its different manifestations: The order of reality is botched and must therefore be abolished so that the magi might build a better reality, the famous utopia. Liberalism, like Gnosis, is a superman fantasy.

Plotinus hits the nail on the head in a passage that cries out to be quoted in full: “Yet imbeciles are found to accept such teaching at the mere sound of the words, ‘you, yourself, are to be nobler than all else, nobler than men, nobler than even gods.’ Human audacity is very great: A man once modest, restrained and simple hears, ‘You, yourself, are the child of God; those men whom you used to venerate, those beings whose worship they inherit from antiquity, none of these are His children; you without lifting a hand are nobler than the very heavens’; others take up the cry: The issue will be much as if in a crowd all equally ignorant of figures, one man were told that he stands a thousand cubic feet; he will naturally accept his thousand cubits even though the others present are said to measure only five cubits; he will merely tell himself that the thousand indicates a considerable figure.”

Is it surprising that Gnosticism in two thousand years has never gone away? If Gnosticism were an ideology of resentment, however, it could not “go away” – no more so than the human nature whose fixity Gnosticism denies. Modern Gnostics coined the epithet reactionary to describe pejoratively those who defend traditional arrangements and a general heritage against “fundamental transformation,” but it was always the Gnostics who were (and are) reactionary. From its beginning, Gnosis constituted a parasitical reaction against civilized achievement – whether that achievement took the form of philosophy or religion. Liberals characterize the Christian Patres as fanatical, but in a comparison, it is Mani or Valentine, not Augustine or Irenaeus, who appears fanatical. Augustine could find some virtue in his Manichaean acquaintance Faustus. Valentine could find no virtue in his enemies, the Platonists and the Christians, although he borrowed copiously from both. And since the Gnostic is, as Plotinus puts it, “nobler than the heavens,” what obliges him to find virtue in anything?

56 thoughts on “Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

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  3. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Eric Voeglin’s erudition and insight. But, I have always been somewhat puzzled by his rather “elastic” understanding of “Gnosticism”. After all, it requires some intellectual adroitness to blame Gnosticism for its world-denial and then to turn around and blame it for movements such as Liberalism and scientism, which deny the existence of anything apart from this world.

    • These modern systems do not affirm the world in the sense of affirming the structure of nature and the order of being. They flout and vilify the structure of nature and the order of being and pretend that they can construct utopia by transforming that structure and that order. I would not call Voegelin’s usage of the word Gnosticism to classify this startling fundamental similarity of antique and modern doctrines “elastic.” I would call it precise, rigorous, and accurate.

      • I totally agree that “these modern systems…flout and vilify….the order of being…”. In this respect, I suppose, the modernist apostasy could be construed as “gnostic”. But, I think that’s about as far as it goes. Even during the days of late antiquity itself, there was quite a variety of different “Gnosticisms” and since then, that variety has only mushroomed to a point where the word “Gnosticism” is a rather nebulous term (hence the elasticity.) The thing that I find strange about connecting Marxism/Liberalism/Scientism to Gnosticism is that these modern systems represent a complete collapse of the great chain of Being, a materialist monism, a “flatland” of meaningless sub-atomic particle flow. To my lights, if Gnosticism has any meaning at all, it is at the antipodes of this modern degraded understanding of reality.

        At the heart of Gnosticism is gnosis, (granted a dualistic and heretical version) but gnosis nevertheless. And what is gnosis? Knowledge. But not knowledge in the ordinary sense. Gnosis refers to spiritual knowledge, that is, knowledge of higher orders of reality, of the supra-sensible and the sacred. Furthermore, the ancient Gnostics were against institutional authority , objecting to the principle of a priesthood being necessary to mediate between man and God . Contemporary secular Liberalism, on the other hand, flatly denies the reality of anything beyond the physical and, to boot, is the epitome of authoritarianism.

    • I don’t think Voeglin would describe modern Gnosticism as “world denying.” “Reality denying” would come closer to his meaning. His argument, as I understand it, is that the “enlightenment” resulted from the atrophy of the “sensorium of transcendence” and “openness to ground,” and that in all the “enlightened” gnostic ideological delusions since, “the transcendent Ground is misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being.”

  4. @Tom – Sorry to be so negative in what follows, but I’m afraid that I regard this ‘gnostics meme’ – so popular on the US reactosphere – as a gigantic red-herring; fundamentally wrong and bad strategy.

    Hardly anything is known about the gnostics, what is known is incomplete and biased (written by their enemies); but what is known concerning secret rites, initiations etc bears (almost) no resemblence to the *behaviour* modern elites; or rather, there are always some resemblences between any two religions or ideologies – but what about the core?

    (To try and use ‘gnosticism’ to ‘explain’ modernity and Leftism is to make the explanation more obscure than that which is being explained!)

    Does New Leftism *really* operate like a gnostic mystery cult? Well, I was a Leftist for years, including a New Leftist – and the answer is no, not at all, obviously not, almost exactly the opposite! There was no mysteries, no magic, no secrets, no initiations, no gradations, no elevations of the spirit and denigration of the body… just nothing like it!

    (The nearest would be to read-into books whatever you wanted to find there – as in literary deconstruction, when textual absences are made the focus – but that is just a specific instance of a general human corruption, surely?)

    Modernity is surely about upfront apostacy from Christianity, opposition to tradition, transcendental inversion, nihilism, demotivation, unbelief, self-hatred, covert suicide – it is something new, it is uncharted territory.

    The primary feature of modern life is the mass media – which occupies most of most people’s waking lives (directly or in terms of their concerns – such as reflected in gossip – including social media, music and video, fashion, lifestyle) and is still growing. The dominant Leftism is a product of the mass media; Leftist ideology is a secondary product of the mass media and its logicand operations; and utterly dependent-on the mass media and its growth.

    And – looked at overall – the mass media operates in a way that is about as far from a gnostic cult as I can imagine.

    It is, I am sure, misguided and mistaken to suppose we can find the key to modernity in some tiny intellectual secret society sects of the early centuries AD.

    While it is fine to speculate and draw parallels and develop ideas in any way that is fruitful; I would have to regard this as mostly a ‘Clever Silly’ notion, which as such will rebound against the possibility of a Christian revival.

    And therefore I am dismayed whenever I see the word ‘gnostic’ on trad blogs.

    • Bruce, nowhere in the essay did I assert that modern Gnostics organize themselves in the form of mystery cults. The mystery cults and the Gnostic sects are distinct phenomena. It is emphatically not true that hardly anything is known about the Gnostics, as you claim. We have whole libraries of their writings. The English translation of the documents in the Nag Hammadi library runs out to something like seven hundred pages – and then there is the raft of Hermetica and Mani’s copious writings – and much, much else. This is a dismaying gap in your knowledge and it seriously undermines the merit of your critique.

      I work and live in an institution dominated by liberals – in its way it’s the liberal institution. Every day I see what I would call religious behavior: Mystic convocations, constant vocal affirmation of orthodoxy, including the orthodoxy of being smarter and knowing more than anyone else, and various “projects” that are supposed to “change the world.” There is plenty of magic. The administrators of the institution are just now obsessed by a behavior that they call the micro-aggression. They cite “studies” discussing this behavior in arcane psychological and sociological terms. I can see quite plainly that they have simply fallen back into or reinvented the sacrificial superstition of the “evil eye” and that their convictions are on the level of those held by illiterate Sicilian peasants and gypsies. They think that they are “moral” and “scientific.” This institution is structured according to an almost infinitesimal scale of fine hierarchical grades, something that Augustine noticed about his Gnostics and that Voegelin, noticing it elsewhere, proposed as a generic trait. None of the people whom I observe would countenance the characterization. Indeed, they would be offended by it and treat it as ridiculous. I nevertheless know what I see.

      The idea that the study of the past cannot help us understand the present is, precisely, a Gnostic idea: It is anti-historical; it assumes that the present is fully capable of understanding itself, without any comparative knowledge; and it dissociates itself from the well-established Traditional principle that there is a fixed human nature that does not change over time but, on the contrary, remains stubbornly crooked. The fact that there is a fixed human nature that does not change over time is why historical comparisons are so valuable. For the study of human nature, history is the main laboratory, perhaps the only real laboratory.

      Thus, for example, trans-sexualism, which we suppose to be uniquely modern, is a topic in a number of Greek and Latin books from the period of Late Antiquity. The self-castrating monks of the Atargatis Cult in Apuleius’ Golden Ass are also, as Apuleius, a Platonist, makes perfectly clear, Gnostics, who envy the wealth and happiness of others, which is how Plotinus describes his Gnostics. Juvenal, writing in the First Century, comments on the disproportionate political influence wielded in the Rome of his day by homosexuals. There is an old saying, I believe, about those who fail to learn the lesson of history…

      Gnosticism was not a few tiny sects. The Gnostic religions, including the Christianizing Gnostic creeds, were demographically in serious competition with the settled religions of the Empire – Stoicism, Platonism, and Christianity itself – in the centuries of Late Antiquity. Gnosticism cropped up again in a competitive way in the Bogomil creed of the medieval Balkans, in the Paulician creed of medieval Armenia and Anatolia, and in the Cathar creed of medieval Provence. These were by no means minuscule, passing events, but large-scale social movements that sometimes assumed the form of an alarming militant insurgency. Here again there is a noticeable gap in your knowledge.

      That modern technology, such as broadcasting, increases the currencies of error and mendacity does not mean that the mistakes and lies that become outsized in modernity had no previous existence. Indeed, ancient Gnosticism used the cutting-edge technology of its day, the scriptorium where books were mass-produced, to spread itself. The heresiologists all comment on the flood of books coming from the various Gnostic sects. So even here we have a provocative parallelism.

      You think that the parallelisms that Voegelin notices and that I gratefully borrow from him are “clever-silly,” a facile dismissal in which there is no offer whatever of rapprochement. I find those parallelisms entirely plausible. My sense of their plausibility comes from a thorough study of Voegelin himself and an equally thorough study of the literatures on Gnosticism particularly and antique religion generally, a project that I have been pursuing for thirty-five of my sixty years. I dislike being in disagreement with you, or any other Orthospherean, but in these matters I trust my authority far more than I trust yours.



      • Perhaps it would be refreshing to observe an instance of Russian pseudo traditionalist form of gnosticism, suprisingly – both in form and content – close to it’s late antiquity archetype:

        Noone: Dugin is a follower of Heidegger and there is a good deal of Gnosticism in Heidegger. Coincidentally, I just today finished writing a review of Dugin’s study of Heidegger for The University Bookman,where it should shortly appear. Dugin, like Heidegger, and like many another Gnostic including the ancient ones, is not without insight. Although we might reject him in summary, it is difficult not to find agreement with some of his observations, like this one: “[The] man of the global world, a Liberal, accepting and recognizing the normativity of ‘the American way of life,’ is [a] kind of patented idiot from the philosophical and etymological point[s] of view, a documented idiot, an idiot parading his foolishness above his head like a banner.” In my judgment however, Berdyaev prefigures the virtues of Dugin as a critical antimodernist while suffering from none of Dugin’s vices.

        For the rest – see blow. (TFB)

    • The ancient Gnostics were an esoteric cult because they failed. The modern Gnostics are the established church because they succeeded. The esoteric doctrines of the cult are now the public doctrines of our society. There is no longer any need to express these doctrines in hermetic symbols, since full-throated expression of these doctrines is the the way to get ahead in the world.

      Now we are the failing cult. As orthodox Christian doctrine becomes more repugnant to public authorities, we have begun to express that doctrine in increasingly hermetic symbols. And as the claims of Christianity become more outrageous to common sense, I expect we will have to resort to gradual initiation.

      You are probably right to say that traditionalists bloggers are too quick to use the word “gnostic,” but its hard to resist the urge to use it when “enlightened opinion” is so manifestly insane. One detraction of the term is that people equate it with secret societies and mystery cults, which is simply the form that any cultural movement takes in its embryonic (or senescent) stage. The illuminati are not meeting in some underground hideaway today. They are everywhere. More than half the people on my street are well to the left of Adam Weishaupt, and I live in Texas!

      • Leo, there is agreement on what it means. You can start with Hans Jonas’ classic study The Gnostic Religion (English, 1958), pass on to Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis (English, 1987), and Giovanni Filoramo’s History of Gnosticism (English, 1990). These three scholars are in remarkable agreement over what their key term means. In the field beyond them, encompassing hundreds of titles, there is a similar consensus. Gnosticism, as all these students of it point out, is an identifiable attitude toward existence. Where this identical attitude appears elsewhere than in a Late Antique context, there is no reason not to apply the term to it. The term has generic value, which is why Voegelin chose.

      • “Gnosticism, as all these students of it point out, is an identifiable attitude toward existence.”

        Thomas, I’m sorry, but that definition isn’t very useful in determining what is Gnostic and what is not, particularly among moderns. It doesn’t even make the dictionary definition of Gnosticism.

        Ioan Culianu:
        “Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of Late Antiquity. Of course, I was ready to accept the idea of different prolongations of ancient Gnosis, and even that of spontaneous generation of views of the world in which, at different times, the distinctive features of Gnosticism occur again.
        I was soon to learn however, that I was a naïf indeed. Not only Gnosis was gnostic, but the Catholic authors were gnostic, the Neoplatonic too, Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Kafka were gnostic…. I learned further that science is gnostic and superstition is gnostic…Hegel is gnostic and Marx is gnostic; all things and their opposite are equally gnostic.”

        Charles Coulombe:
        “In reality, ‘Gnosticism,’ like ‘Protestantism,’ is a word that has lost most of its meaning.”

        Leo: This is simply a tautology – when the term is used loosely, its meaning becomes loose. So let’s use it rigorously, as Jonas and the others do. (TFB)

      • Provoked by this essay, I delved deeper into Gnostic literature. It disturbed me, there is something demonic going on here. False religions are, logically, either an invention of men, or an invention of Satan.

        I can define Gnosticism, dictionary be damned: It is Satanism. It takes the revelations and power and authority of God and accepts it, only to subvert it. Once subverted, it eventually admits that it was all a show, invented myths, a path to enlightenment, useful only to set man free to be his own God. Prior to the subversion they are Manichaeans and Valentinians, but after the subversion they are Anton LaVey, Oprah, and Maynard James Keenan.

        I don’t know if I can continue studying the topic because I got physically nauseous from its demonic stench.

        Earl: See below.

    • Modernity is surely about upfront apostacy from Christianity, opposition to tradition, transcendental inversion, nihilism, demotivation, unbelief, self-hatred, covert suicide – it is something new, it is uncharted territory.
      The dominant Leftism is a product of the mass media; Leftist ideology is a secondary product of the mass media and its logicand operations; and utterly dependent-on the mass media and its growth.

      I don’t see how any of this really contradicts anything Professor Bertonneau said. Many of these aspects of modernity you cite like apostasy, opposition to traditional religion, inversion, self-hate and covert suicide were precisely characteristic of gnosticism. Don’t we all suppose that the media reinforces the modern gnostic world view? You should be honest and admit that the real reason why you did not like this post was because a critique of gnosticism *necessarily* implicates Mormonism.

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  8. It seems to me that if one were to imitate Christ in what he thought and did, one would quickly find himself dead, either being murdered (crucified) or of starvation; since Christ, imitating God, is non competitive.
    Is this then not a Gnostic outcome, in the way that the Gnostic existential position is opposed to our earthly existence.

    • It happens every day, to the extent of massacres, in the Islamic world. It has happened in the non-Islamic world, in France, Russia, and China. It is increasingly threatening to one’s livelihood, if not quite yet to one’s life, to be a professing Nicene Christian in the Western World, including the North-American chapter of that world.

      Kristor and Alan Roebuck have been discussing this in other threads during the last week.

      In the long term, because imitating Christ means conforming to the structure of nature and the order of being, imitating Christ is not non-competitive; it is adaptive. Gnosticism is non-adaptive because it is a rebellion against the structure of nature and the order of being. This is why all Gnostic societies, including the modern liberal societies, have failed. Non-adaptive promises can nevertheless be tempting and alluring, so it is entirely unsurprising that they are never fully suppressed, but regularly reassert their appeal.

      Of course, the words “adaptive” and “adaptation” have Darwinian connotations, but even Darwinians misuse them. In the case of humanity, the question of survival, while already two hundred thousand years old, is not yet fully settled, and stretches away into the future. We can but speculate, making the best wager possible on the strength of what evidence we have. My bet is that those who are willing to adapt to the structure of nature and the order of being have a better long-term chance of survival than those who refuse to adapt thereto. The future, supposing that there will be a future, must on this calculation belong, not to suicide cults like Islam and Liberalism, but to the life-affirming Truth of the Word.

  9. While reading Plotinus’ and Augustine’s accounts of Gnosticism side-by-side in this manner I am struck by how rooted it is in human psychological propensities rather than in any kind of intellectual system. This would explain its ancient (pre-Christian) and recurring appeal. Is it not the case that some form of Gnosticism is evident in any major or minor heresy? My church history is rusty here.

    • This is not necessarily the case. I know of no writer who insists, for example, that the Arian heresy is Gnostic. Nor did the Christian writers of the Late Antique period condemn Pagan sects under the term Gnostic.

      • Agreed. But can the subordination of Jesus to God the Father in the sense that he is ‘lower’ than the Father not be construed as implicitly Gnostic. My impression of Gnosticism as a system is that it is almost infinitely malleable. As far as the Pagan sects, to the extent they are pagan they cannot be heretical.

  10. Thanks for posting this, Prof. Bertonneau. The essay is very interesting and informative. It just so happens that my son & I have been discussing the gnostic sects of late, and (from what little our combined knowledge of them indicates – I must confess a large gap in my own knowledge of early gnosticism: so much to study, so little time to study it!) their similarities to their modern philosophical kinsmen. I have turned my son on to your article, and I will be returning to it myself many times in the future, I’m sure. I have also noted your reading recommendations in your replies to others.

    • Those are kind and welcome words. There are three more articles, one of which will deal with primary Gnostic documents, such as Valentine’s Gospel of Truth. I hope to post them once every two weeks or so. Hans Jonas is essential reading – Voegelin depended on Jonas heavily in writing The Ecumenic Age. In addition to the scholarly works to which I referred earlier in this thread, I strongly recommend Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, perhaps that writer’s masterpiece, and Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I will be teaching both works in my Modern Drama course in the coming Fall Semester. I have for some time been putting together an article on The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Flaubert’s play about Late Antiquity, focusing on Anthony as a central figure. The Temptation has the same plot as Madame Bovary, something that Charles Baudelaire noticed in an essay about Flaubert’s best-known novel. Flaubert believed that modernity was essentially Gnostic and that Gnosticism fed powerfully the modern trend of narcissism.

      It is a curious phenomenon, is it not, that people are willing to say things about Gnosticism, whose etymon gnosis means a type of knowledge, without actually knowing much about it? But perhaps it is not so odd after all. Greek has a number of words for knowledge. Episteme is one. It means available, vetted knowledge, as opposed to secret knowledge, knowledge gained somehow without experience or without recourse to the codification of experience, as in Tradition. Gnosis strongly implies godlike knowledge not dependent on experience or learning. Modernity is short on episteme and replete with gnosis.

      The modern world is full of non-experientially gained, non-archival “knowledge,” from the “knowledge” that one is the “victim” of “micro-aggression,” to the “knowledge” that we need a “carbon-tax” because “man-made global warming” is about to fry the planet. Liberals have a phrase – “he just doesn’t get it” – that divulges their essentially Gnostic attitude with unintended candor.

  11. In an attempt to “troll” the thread, someone calling himself Vavilovxx writes, “The infantile view of Islam you have unquestioningly received from AIPAC and Fox news [sic] cannot admit any complexity.” The same writer accuses me of: “Hallucinating the dread hand of Manichaeism behind Islam.” In fact, I suggested that Islam stems from Monophysitism and Sabellianism, two Gnostic offshoots of early Christianity. I will not admit this bizarre rant beyond these snippets. Vavilovxx may keep company with the Formless One – quite as unwelcome in my Christian house as the Suitors were in the Manse of Odysseus.

    Bill O’Reilly, the heart and soul of Rupert Murdoch’s weird, effeminate broadcasting enterprise, has recently sided with Islamic would-be mass-murderers against Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders.

    The news in V’s “Fox news” [sic] should be capitalized: Fox News.

    • “… you have unquestioningly received from AIPAC and Fox news”

      Ha, ha. Your troll must think he stumbled onto a “conservative” website.

  12. If you study original sources of “modern” artists, critics, patrons, etc., they justify their break with tradition by saying mimesis and storytelling were mere illustration and that they are delving deeper into the unconscious. Dada, which is probably the most influential today, viewed creation as chaotic and nonsensical, and humanity as “cast out.”

    I can easily imagine MOMA, Tate Modern, Pompideu, etc., as temples of gnosticism. Many intelligent people have commented on the cult-like quality of modern art.

    Here’s T. H. Robsjohn Gibbings in American Weekly, Feb. 22, 1948:

    Modern Art was “a cult of bewilderment that rested on the hazardous foundations of obscurity and negation, and utilized a private, often secret, language which required the aid of an interpreter.”

    It’s interesting that after WWII the U.S. government, under the aegis of the CIA, propagandized modern art abroad as an example of “freedom” opposing oppressive communism.

    • People in Don Quixote, Part II, have read Don Quixote, Part I, which they mockingly dismiss as being ridiculous and irrelevant because – wait for it – these are after all modern times and we modern people are too sophisticated for cultural throwbacks like the Don.

  13. >Remarkably, Plotinus associates Gnosticism with economic resentment, attributing to the sectarians the disposition that, “Wealth and poverty, and all the inequalities of that order are made ground of complaint.” Plotinus notes by way of sane counterargument that, “This is to ignore that the Sage demands no equality in such matters,” because “he cannot think that to own many things is to be richer or that the powerful have the better of the simple.”

    Status. Dominance. Libido dominandi. This is probably behind it. This is one of the most fundamental human motive, from an evolutionary science angle. It is so deep and fundamental, so strongly intertwined with almost everything bad human beings do, and also often with the great and glorious deeds as well, that if you wanted a scientific parallel to the Christian idea of original sin, it would be status-seeking behavior.

    For example the primary reason people dislike hierarchies is this status-envy thing, “why is he so much better than me so that he deserves a higher rank?”

    It is remarkable how much human self-understanding was done by theatre plays, be that ancient Greek tragedies or Shakespeare. And you know what theatre plays are about?

    The Sage seeks no status, the Hero seeks to fight for gaining status individually, the Gnostic seeks to rearrange society so as to increase the status of his group.

    • I have tried to work my understanding of Gnosticism into a character concept that I am writing for a work of fiction. The character will be a philosopher starting a school attempting to gather disciples. It will be an exercise in enhancing my understanding of the philosophy, and a fun time. I have already run into many difficulties that arise from the absurdities of Gnosticism itself.

      The character must eat, but Gnosticism considers such edible materials evil. Therefore the character must not eat in public, or conjure a visible revulsion during a meal, or eat only that which has been provided by a lesser being. Therefore he will admit students, auditors, into his lectures at the low low cost of: one non-perishable meal.

      He will then lecture, and at the end of that second lecture, proposition students to remain for the next level of teaching- which can be obtained by a small sum of money from the students.

      Upon completion, students are permitted to attend the most advanced, secret lecture, more a gathering of elite students, The Perfected, in which their finances will be pooled and shared and their secrets and plans will be discussed.

      • Except for the “small amount of money,” you have described Scientology on the one hand and Yale Law School on the other.

  14. Dr. Bertonneau, I have Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis on hand rather than the Hans Jonas book. Would Rudolph’s book be a reasonable good introduction? Thanks.

    • Yes, Rudolph is an excellent place to begin. He is extraordinarily objective despite being fascinated by his topic. His section on the Iraqi Mandaeans is backed up by actual fieldwork among them. Rudolph makes no attempt to find ancient-modern parallelisms. Jonas, in the English version of his book, does. He was the first to find affiliations between ancient philosophical Gnosticism and the outlook of the Existentialist school. He finds the same “anti-cosmicism” in both. You will want to read Jonas as well as Rudolph. I also heartily recommend Steven Runciman’s study of The Medieval Manichee.

  15. I’ve often thought of Burning Man as a Gnostic celebration. The art work reminds me of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Wilhelm Fraenger, in his book on Bosch, thinks this painting is millennialist and uses symbols from the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Millennialism seems to have started with Christianity and may be grafted on to Gnostic thinking. Or, as you say, gnostics use it in order to subvert it.

    • You’re on to something. What you notice is why I try, in my discussions, to coordinate two thinkers, Eric Voegelin and Rene Girard. Voegelin notices that Gnosticism is mimetic; Girard has a theory of mimesis – and in that theory, mimesis becomes rivalry, which leads to a crisis, which resolves itself in sacrifice. Thus when we say that liberalism is Gnostic, we are also saying that it is sacrificial.

  16. PS I continue to await, patiently, Dr. Bertonneau’s remarks on Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. I anticipate both praise and disagreement.

    • I haven’t yet read Melzer’s book. I only know it at second hand through reviews. My reading of the Symposium might fairly be taken as invoking a kind of esotericism because I suggest that the dialogue only yields its fuller (if not its hypothetical “fullest”) meaning when the reader coordinates the date of the dinner party with the events in the latter phase of the Peloponnesian War. My friend Richard Cocks, who is certainly not a Straussian, remarks that many professional philosophers seem to misunderstand the Republic. They consider it in isolation, Richard argues, and fail to grasp that it is a study in what the perfect constitution of the city would be if justice were the only virtue – but justice is not the only virtue and neither Socrates nor Plato ever says that it is. In this case, to understand the Republic, one needs the other dialogues.

      Stipulating again that I’m basing my reaction on second-hand knowledge of Melzer, I might say that what the reviewers tell of his study reminds me of Harold Bloom’s various literary studies beginning with The Map of Misreading. Bloom argues that whatever originality there is in literature comes from the attempt by “strong poets” (including prose writers) deliberately not to be influenced by their precursor-models – an attempt that takes the form of deliberately misreading what the precursor-models have written and responding to it as though that was what they had written. And this avoidance-gesture paradoxically actually does yield originality, Bloom asserts. But Bloom ignores the many examples of writers who are original despite the fact that they acknowledge and imitate their precursor-models and understand those models quite lucidly. Bloom has discovered one way in which literature is continuous (by being stubbornly discontinuous and therefore arriving at continuity after all), but this hardly accounts for the totality of literature.

      My suspicion is that Melzer has made the same kind of exaggerated claim as Bloom. Certain instances fit his scheme, but many others do not.

      I will try to read the book in the near future and report back on it.

  17. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/05/24) | The Reactivity Place

  18. Pingback: The cataphatic disagreement of religions and their spiritual disunity | semel traditae sanctis

  19. On Branko Malić’s essay concerning Alexander Dugin as a modern Gnostic, to which “Noone” points us: This is a very well written essay, worth reading. Presciently, Voegelin categorized Heidegger with other modern Gnostics in Science Politics & Gnosticism (1962), along with Hegel and Marx. Voegelin’s analysis of Hegel’s “swindle” is definitive and he finds the same “magical gestures” in Heidegger that he finds in The Communist Manifesto. Another of Voegelin’s remarks, on Hegel, is also valuable. I paraphrase, accurately, I hope: Although Hegel is a swindler and his Phenomenology is the swindle, this does not mean that Hegel is valueless or that people wise to his swindle can learn nothing from him. I would extend this principle even to the ancient Gnostics, while agreeing with the Church Fathers that the Gnostic heresy had to be defeated. Intelligent people can learn much from the Gnostics. They were, after all, in the same reaction against Paul’s “Powers of this World and the Air” as their Christian counterparts. It’s just that they reacted in the wrong direction. With Dugin in mind, we might say that his insights into Western Liberalism are true despite the fact that his nihilism (he actually pretends to be against nihilism, but he longing references to Heidegger’s “abyss” contradict the assertion) is pernicious.

    BTW, it is a news item of the past few days that Dugin has been fired from his university position for remarks concerning Russian separatism in Ukraine that seem to condone murder.

  20. Thank you for a tremendous essay. A very convincing portrayal of the essentially religious attitude of modernism. Reading the new science at the moment and looking forward to keeping your insights in mind while doing so.

  21. Reblogged this on Seeing the Form and commented:
    Excellent post, as usual, from the desk of Thomas Bertonneau, regarding Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism. ..with an interesting comments section to boot!

  22. Pingback: Gnosticism in Contemporary Culture - Stares at the World

  23. Pingback: A Brief History of Gnosticism | Σ Frame

  24. Pingback: The Religion of Gnosticism | Σ Frame


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