This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”
The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.
Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous.
I. Baur was a student of Hegel. Hans Jonas studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and theology under Rudolf Bultmann. Jonas was particularly associated with Heidegger until 1933, when Heidegger’s suddenly candid Nazi sympathies and Jonas’ Jewish affiliation not only brutally alienated the student from the teacher but also sent the student (doctorate incomplete) into exile to England and thence (1934) to what was still called Palestine. Jonas joined the British Army and returned to Germany in 1945 as a soldier on the victorious side. After the war, the ex-soldier taught in Canada. Coming to the USA, he joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, in 1955. In later life, Jonas wrote two books – The Phenomenon of Life (1966) and The Imperative of Responsibility (1979) – that influenced the direction of environmentalism and its offshoot in so-called “green politics.” Conservative readers will feel a shudder of aversion, perhaps, in the divulgence of these latter phases of the Jonas biography, but they should bracket the response. Jonas’ magnum opus remains his Gnostic Religion, a book indispensable for an understanding of Gnosis in its Late Antique context and beyond. The book served that function for Voegelin, who knew it and studied it and who incorporated much of its thesis into the fourth (and at the time seemingly the final) volume of Order and History, his Ecumenic Age (1965).
Jonas described himself as an Existentialist, a label that Heidegger always disavowed. Jonas approached Gnosis, through the phenomenological method, from a discernible Existentialist perspective. Like Baur, approaching his topic with respect, Jonas took the Gnostic documents seriously, seeing in them the expressions of an anguished consciousness grappling with the problems of a disintegrating civilization, in which the resources of Tradition had become decreasingly accessible. “We can imagine,” Jonas writes, “with what feelings gnostic men must have looked up to the starry sky.” Among such men “the Music of the Spheres was no longer heard,” but rather the brilliant silence of the sky struck them as “evil.”
For Jonas the context of Gnosticism is the late, markedly religious phase of Hellenism. The first phase of Hellenism announced itself in Alexander of Macedon’s prodigious conquests and the establishment, in their wake, of the Diadochic Kingdoms. Greek language and Greek high culture became a universal medium of discourse in a great swath of geography from Greece itself right through Persia to Central Asia. The second phase of Hellenism occurred as the local traditions began to react to the new dispensation imposed through conquest from above. Jonas tends to couch his understanding of this new Greek-speaking Orient in dialectical terms: The lingua franca and its related thinking constituted together the unity of a “cosmopolitan secular culture”; the submerged local cultures constituted the multiplicity, in which, in order to articulate itself, each peculiar worldview adopted the standard Hellenic parole of “man as such” with its accompanying techniques of rhetoric and logic. But the conquered societies were not themselves rational or secular societies, on the Greek model; they were religious societies or temple polities that articulated their local worldviews as myth rather than discourse.
In the train of three centuries, in Jonas’ summary, the varieties of local religiosity, while interacting with Orphism and Platonism, gradually transformed the Greek-speaking Orient into “a pagan religious culture,” stemming from “profoundly un-Greek sources.” Gnosticism, like Judaism and Christianity, represents one element in this composite matrix of eclectic notions derived from diverse ethnic sources, which react on one another in a myriad of ways, but there were many others: Mithraism, the Astarte and Isis cults, Astrology, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism – even Stoicism had eastern roots.
By the beginning of the Third Century AD, this dialectical transformation of secularity into religiosity had reached its terminal form. “Traditional dualism,” Jonas writes, “traditional astrological fatalism, traditional monotheism were all drawn into it, yet with such a peculiarly new twist to them that in the present setting they subserved the presentation of a novel spiritual principle.” This new soul-idea proved, itself, to be sufficiently powerful to overcome the patchwork of peculiar systems, each related to a locality, and to express itself with remarkable conceptual homogeneity despite a proliferation of peculiar nomenclature. The same new soul-idea finds a most radical and representative articulation in what Jonas calls the “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation” for which the main label is Gnosis. This Greek word, Gnosis, which was formerly current in philosophy, now takes on a meaning vastly different from its normative, rational usage.
Gnosticism, then, is a theory of two hostile forces in the contest of which the enlightened spirit perceives its stake – nothing less than redemption from the world and ensconcement in godhood. Knowledge, redefined, plays a role in this drama. “Gnosis meant pre-eminently knowledge of God,” Jonas writes; “and from what we have said about the radical transcendence of the deity [in the emerging conception] it follows that ‘knowledge of God’ is the knowledge of something naturally unknowable and therefore itself not a natural condition.” Gnosis concerns “secrets of salvation,” reception of which “is itself… a modification of the human condition,” an “event in the soul” that “transforms the knower himself by making him a partaker in the divine existence.”
In Jonas’ formula, “the cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and the world, and correspondingly that of man and the world.” Jonas allows the consensus that such radical dualism has its source in Iranian cosmology, a notion going back to the work of Franz Cumont (1868 – 1947). That consensus, however, is mere genealogy, which interests Jonas much less than the ramping-up of the ontological dichotomy in the Late Antique doctrines. In Gnosticism, as Jonas describes it, “the deity is absolutely transmundane,” and really not knowable in mundane terms, at all – not, that is, an object of Platonic or Aristotelian “theoria.” By contrast, “the world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of him in the cosmos over which they rule.” Adding this qualification, Jonas duly notes the incorporation in Gnostic cosmology, always under its imperative of antithetical revaluation, of elements from Iranian, Babylonian, Syrian, and Egyptian theology. Under this revaluation of traditional, local theologies, all gods below the transmundane God become demonic: “Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit.”
We recall that in Platonic cosmology, as it takes form in the dialogue Timaeus, the orderliness of the universe is entirely benevolent, offering itself as an imitable model to those who are willing to study it and to translate its terms into their earthly, political correspondences. This gesture, modeling the earthy life on the heavenly round, reproduces the gesture of the Demiurge in creating the universe. The Demiurge consulted the Ideas or Forms before he turned his transforming art to the shaping of the primordial material that supplied his handicraft. Finite boundaries enclose the classical cosmos, but the individual never feels the cosmic finitude as an oppressive limit. The classical cosmos is transparent; it does not glare implacable at its inhabitants or pose insoluble riddles.
The term “anti-cosmic” thus plays a central role in Jonas’ analysis of the Gnostic worldview. Jonas writes: “For the world as a whole, vast as it appears to its inhabitants, we have thus the visual image of an enclosed cell – what Marcion contemptuously called haec cellula creatoris – into which or out of which life may move.” We remark the difference between this image of opacity and the classical image of transparency. Governed by the Archons, or lower, demonic gods, “the universe… is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man’s life.” Every aspect of existence becomes demonized in the Gnostic re-conception of them. Thus all known extension, whether geographical or celestial, becomes a labyrinth in which the souls of the elect wander in a type of exiled; time, for the elect subject, becomes an agony of postponement, an immensity of aeons (in the purely chronological sense) that must play out before the transmundane deity abolishes the world. Again, in Jonas’ resumption, “darkness has embodied its whole essence and power in this world, which now therefore is the world of darkness.”
Opposite to this world is the “Pleroma,” the divine, immaterial realm existing transcendentally apart from and beyond this world, from which material existence descended or fell as the result, not of a creative and benevolent act, but rather by malicious negligence leading to a spiritual catastrophe. Drawing on the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, Jonas tells how: “In the invisible and nameless heights there was a perfect Aeon pre-existent. His name is Fore-Beginning, Forefather, and Abyss… Through immeasurable eternities he remained in profoundest repose.” The term Pleroma (“Fullness”) refers to the total self-sufficiency of the “Forefather” in the realm of light, which is (counter-intuitively and paradoxically) identical with Him. The Forefather emanates other perfect beings to dwell with Him, to be in Him, to contemplate Him, and to glorify Him. One, Sophia, thinking to imitate the Forefather, attempts emanations of her own.
Sophia’s superbia resulted in what the deluded think of as creation. Gnosis, however, reveals Sophia’s deed to be an aborted mockery of the Pleroma. Sparks from the luminous realm, atoms of the Forefather Himself, have become imprisoned in the abortion. Jonas writes, “This is one of the fundamental symbols of Gnosticism: a pre-cosmic fall of part of the divine principle underlies the genesis of the world and of human existence.” Now Third-Century Paganism had its own ideas of salvation, among which was the one that speculated how the soul of the good person might find its reward beyond the tomb by rising among the stars, there to dwell eternally. Gnosticism, as Jonas describes it, stands strongly at odds with such a belief, which, by its frame of reference, it must regard as a lie and a swindle.
II. Jonas stresses that although Gnosticism appropriates the language of philosophy and although the authors of the Gnostic tracts demonstrate a system-building talent that results in something that often resembles philosophy, nevertheless Gnosticism remains non- and more especially anti-philosophical. Jonas remarks on the Gnostic usage of the rhetorical-analytic device called allegoresis. One can follow the drawing of allegorical affinities between rational discourse, on the one hand, and mythic or symbolic discourse, on the other, back to Plato. The technique gained currency, however, not in the immediate post-Classical period but in the last, transitional sub-phase of secular Hellenism. A key figure in the validation of allegoresis is Philo Judaeus (20 BC – 50 AD), the Alexandrian rabbi and Platonic philosopher who sought to demonstrate the compatibility of Mosaic revelation, as codified in the Old Testament, with Platonic doctrine, as articulated in the dialogues. Philo interpreted symbols in the Old Testament as metaphors of Plato’s rational theology. As a result, Jonas writes: “The myth, however freely [it was] handled, was never contradicted nor were its own values controverted.” Jonas adds that, “The system of scriptural allegory evolved in [Philo’s] school was bequeathed as a model to the early Fathers of the Church,” and “here again the purpose is that of integration and synthesis.”
Gnostic allegoresis functions otherwise: “Instead of taking over the value system of the traditional myth, it proves the deeper ‘knowledge’ by reversing the roles of good and evil, sublime and base, blessed and accursed, to be found in the original.” An entire Gnostic sect named itself after the serpent in Genesis – in Greek, they were the Ophites and in Aramaic the Naassenes. Since it is the serpent,” Jonas writes, “that persuades Adam and Eve to taste of the fruit of knowledge and thereby to disobey their Creator, [the serpent] came in a whole group of systems to represent the ‘pneumatic’ principle from beyond counteracting the designs of the Demiurge, and thus could become as much a symbol of the powers of redemption as the biblical God had been degraded to a symbol of cosmic oppression.” A Gnostic sect, the Peratae, “did not even shrink from regarding the historical Jesus as a particular incarnation of ‘the general serpent,’ i.e., the serpent from Paradise understood as a principle.” The Peratae reinterpreted Cain antithetically. Abel, being favored by God, and God being for the Gnostics a false and wicked God, Cain is obviously a heroic opponent of wickedness. “Perhaps we should speak in such cases,” writes Jonas, “not of allegory at all, but of a form of polemics, that is, not of an exegesis of an original text, but of its tendentious rewriting.”
Jonas judges that, for Gnosticism, “the negative evaluation of the cosmos is fundamental.” One of the most valuable and daring parts of The Gnostic Religion is the suite of chapters devoted to the contrasting images of the cosmos in Greek and Gnostic thinking, culminating in an Epilogue, written for the book’s republication in the mid-1960s, on “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism.” The Greek and Gnostic images of the cosmos are ideas that imply specific consequences in human behavior and in the structure of society that differ as much as the images, or ideas, themselves. As Jonas reminds his readers, the word cosmos, in its normative usage, carries a wide range of positive connotations, which together sum up a relation of the subject to its existence against the universal backdrop. Jonas writes, “Cosmos means ‘order’ in general, whether of the world or household, of a commonwealth or a life.” A bit later in the discussion: “The universe was considered to be the perfect exemplar of order, and at the same time the cause of all order in particulars,” as for example in the independent polis, or city-state. Jonas quotes Cicero to the effect that, “man was born to contemplate the cosmos and to imitate it,” a precept that “establishes the connection between cosmology and ethics.” Cicero’s notion, with its obvious relation to the other forms of classical cosmology such as Plato’s, has ancient roots going back into the Stone Age. Agricultural societies naturally orient themselves by the stars and constellations; they see the order written in the heavens as intimately connected with the existential order, by the maintenance of which they live or die. It is important to recall the millennial character of these ideas and their centrality to the social order. Gnosticism rebels against customs and perceptions so long-standing that their origins must be nearly the same as consciousness itself. That is how radical the Gnostic revaluation of the cosmos is. It is to Jonas’ credit that he brings such fairness to his examination of Gnostic anti-cosmicism. Jonas points out that beginning with Alexander, significant changes had come about in the region of the empires.
Jonas thus takes care to point out that Alexander’s conquests and the establishment of the Diadochic Kingdoms brought about an upheaval in the existential situation of the enlightened individual. That individual was no longer unambiguously the citizen of an independent city-state, living in something like a face-to-face community, but rather the subject, in the disestablished sense, of a kingdom-by-conquest or empire. It is not only Gnosticism that registers this change of condition. In Stoicism, which responds to the new situation, the phrase “to play one’s part” becomes prominent. As Jonas remarks, “a role played is substituted for a real function performed.” The older precept of the union of Anthropos and Cosmos became afflicted by a “fictitious element in the construction.” As the suspicion grew that “the part was insignificant to the whole,” the belief in the cosmos as something meaningful entered a phase of “strained fervor.”
The Gnostics, Jonas writes, seized on this rift in the old world-picture in an ingenious – and prototypically antithetic and invidious – way: “In retaining this name [cosmos] for the world, the Gnostics retained the idea of order as the main characteristic of what they were intent on deprecating. Indeed, instead of denying to the world the attribute of order… they turned this very attribute from one of praise into one of opprobrium, and in the process if anything increased the emphasis on it.” The positive elements of hierarchy and regularity in the old idea become “rigid and inimical order, tyrannical and evil law” in the new idea. For the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Stoic schools the cosmos was itself, if not quite a god, then divine. But for Gnosticism the cosmos becomes “devoid of meaning and goodness, alien to the purposes of man… an order empty of divinity.”
In his Epilogue, Jonas, having completed his “Existential reading of Gnosticism,” undertakes what he calls his “Gnostic reading of Existentialism.” I construe this Epilogue as a response to Voegelin, given its date and supplementary character. Much of modern thinking, Jonas argues, especially the strain of so-called Existentialism exemplified in the work of writers like Heidegger and Sartre, expresses a type of revulsion against existence – tending to nihilism – that strikingly resembles ancient Gnosticism. One difference is that Gnosticism in its ancient context “was never admitted to the respectable company of… philosophic tradition,” whereas modern nihilism might be said to dominate discourse in every chapter of society. As in antiquity, “the disruption between man and total reality is at the bottom of nihilism” which constitutes a “dualism without metaphysics.”
III. If anyone were Jonas’ successor it would be Kurt Rudolph although Rudolph is not so lively a writer as Jonas; Rudolph adheres to an academic style of presentation, but the result is admirable. Like Jonas, Rudolph emphasizes the radical dualism of the general Gnostic worldview, including its vision of an absolutely transmundane deity: “The gnostic idea of God is… not only the product of a dualism hostile to the world, but it is at the same also a consequence of the esoteric conception of knowledge”; and “dualism dominates the whole of gnostic cosmology.” In Gnosticism according to Rudolph: “The world of the creator is subordinated to a world which lies before it in space and time – and at the same time is thereby devaluated; its origin is to be explained from a disharmony which somehow enters in at the margin of the upper world.” Rudolph, like Jonas, remarks the eclecticism of the Gnostic system-builders. The systems “are built together out of older mythological material,” giving “an impression of artificiality.” Gnostic discourse “attaches itself in the main to older religious imagery,” writes Rudolph, and it “prospers on the soil of ‘host religions.’” Thus Gnosticism “can… be described as parasitic.” It is the case that “Gnosticism strictly speaking has no tradition of its own but only a borrowed one.” The borrowing, however, always conforms to radical reversal of the original evaluation.
The “parasitic” character of Gnosticism, as remarked by both Rudolph and Jonas, explains the importance that the Gnostic writers placed on the idea of their own originality. A colloquial way of putting the standard Gnostic claim would resemble the phrase, “yes, but we thought of it first – and they stole it from us.” Another translation into ordinary language of a standard Gnostic thesis would resemble the phrase, “yes, but this is how it really happened.” The two rhetorical poses work together to make out the actual original, whether it is Plato’s Timaeus or one of the Four Gospels, as a forgery or a swindle – or at best a corrupt version of a suppressed and only just now recovered real, honest-to-God original. That Islam exhibits this tendency and that the Koran makes just such a claim about Hebrew and Christian Scripture suggest that the Koranic creed belongs to the Gnostic genre of religions. Cyril Glass, writing in The New Encyclopedia of Islam (2000), asserts that, “In the Muslim view, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Divine nature of Jesus, and other points of difference from Islam, are deviations from what they believe Jesus’ true revelations to have been.” Therefore, Glass continues, Jesus’ message, as Muslims see it, “could not have been anything other than Islam as they know it.” This view is consistent with the case for the Monophysite and Sabellian origins of Islam.
The many cultic offshoots of Christianity that sprang up in New York State’s “Burned Over” District in the middle third of the Nineteenth Century also tend to exhibit the traits of parasitism on already existing and longstanding doctrines and traditions – and aggressive, trumping competitiveness with those same doctrines and traditions. The obvious, but by no means the only, example is The Book of Mormon. A less obvious example, extraneous to the “Burned Over” District but spiritually akin to that District’s apocalypse is the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which commits the consciously Gnostic gesture of denying the Divinity of Jesus, thereby demoting him to just another prophet, while seeking to ground itself in “Orphic” originality. Emerson, contemporaneously with Marx, liked to turn things on their heads. In Nature (1836), Emerson denounces the historical inheritance as sepulchral; and he preaches a kind of liberation from the tonnage of the centuries. Rudolph draws historical parallels with great reluctance compared to Jonas, but his own words prompt his readers to draw them.
On Gnostic anthropology, Rudolph observes the division of humanity into three “races” or genera – the “pneumatics,” who possess a “Soul” or “Self” and thereby are saved; the “psychics,” who possess a “Spirit” on the animal-level, with whom the “pneumatics” may collaborate; and the “hylics,” who are entirely of matter and are doomed to perish with the material realm when the pervasion of knowledge among those who can receive it abolishes the offense against the Pleroma. Rudolph writes: “All three have originated in succession, but they are united in the one first man; they form the three constituents of every man [and] the one which in each case predominates determines the type of man to which one belongs… Only pneumatics are gnostics and capable of redemption.” According to Rudolph, the intermediate status of the psychics “does not signify any weakening of the dualistic principle, but its consistent application in changed situation,” in which missionary appeals to orthodox communities had come to seem either desirable or necessary to the Gnostic communities in their struggle for public sympathy.
For Jonas allegoresis plays a central role in Gnostic discourse. Rudolph follows Jonas. Rudolph identifies an instance of allegoresis in the Gnostic “Anthropos-Myth.” Gnostic system-builders reinterpreted the story of Adam this way: “The Body of Adam is moulded by the creator and his angels… from the elements… Since, however, he has no real life in him, he is equipped by the highest being in a secret or mediated fashion with the divine spirit, i.e., the pneuma substance, which exalts him above the creator God and bestows on him the capacity for redemption.” Adam stands as the prototype of the pneumatics. Rudolph remarks that, “redemption consists in the awakening of Adam to the knowledge of his true origin and the worthlessness of the Demiurge.” This “Anthropos-Myth” replicates the duality of the two worlds in microcosm in the constitution of the Primal Man.
In its survey of the chief Gnostic documents, drawing heavily on the Nag Hammadi cache, Rudolph’s Gnosis tends to duplicate Jonas. Writing at a later date than Jonas, however, Rudolph had access to additional material either undiscovered or unpublished until the 1970s. Of particular interest are Rudolph’s treatments of the Uighur and Tocharian branches of Gnosticism, more specifically, Manichaeism; and his comments on Mandaean Gnosticism, the only certifiable Gnostic cult to survive from Late Antiquity continuously into the present day. Whereas in the West Gnosticism had largely died out by the time of the Gothic kingdoms, in the East, in Byzantium, and farther afield in the territories of the Persian Empire, Gnosticism enjoyed a long Late-Antique denouement. Especially in Central Asia, Gnosticism took the particular form of the doctrine originating in the perfervid religious imagination of a single figure. This was Mani (216-276), who, in the Gnostic pattern established by Simon Magus, presented himself as prophet and savior.
Manichaeism enjoyed toleration in Persia under Shapur I (reigned 240 – 270) and his successor Hormizd I (reigned 270 – 271); but Hormizd’s successor Bahram I (reigned 273-276) sided with the Zoroastrian clergy, jailed Mani, and proscribed the religion. Mani’s talent for missionary organization insured that his movement would survive these setbacks. It did so in North Africa, Italy, and Gaul for two centuries; and in areas east of Persia for much longer. The Uighur Khanate, which dominated Central Asia in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, made Manichaeism the state religion, while supporting missionaries as far away as China. The successor-states were also pronouncedly Manichaean. Writes Rudolph: “Mani… did not regard himself as a philosopher but [as] a gnostic theosophist and prophet [who] saw his task as fusing the religious tradition of the Orient of his time into a universal religion of the salvation of man.” Mani’s “dualism of spirit and body, light and darkness,” resonated with Zoroastrianism, elements of which it incorporated, and with many of the ethnic religions of the steppes. After the death of Shapur, Mani’s royal patron, the new religion came into conflict with Zoroastrianism and suffered a period of persecution during which Mani himself became a victim.
There would be a Gnostic resurgence in Europe in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, in the forms of the Paulician and Bogomil Sects, mainly a Balkan phenomenon, and Catharism, in Southern France and parts of Italy. There is some reason to connect these movements with Manichaeism although the precise genealogy of their doctrines cannot be known with certainty. In respect of Catharism, the structure of the cult, with the elect, the auditors, and a laity, seems to reproduce that of Manichaeism. Steven Runciman put it as follows in The Medieval Manichee (1947): “Man, to escape from the vileness of his body, must seek to make himself spirit as far as may be. This is done by a gnosis, an experience that is usually won by an initiation ceremony,” from which “a class of initiates arises, a spiritual aristocracy.”
To return to Rudolph – his book reproduces graphic material from the illuminated manuscripts of the Central Asian Manichaeans, who belong chronologically to the Medieval Period to the limited degree that that term applies to their geographical region. We see the white-robed elect instructing the laity and copying the scriptures. The books specify the commandments of the faith, including the enjoinment of “any doubt of [the] religion,” and, for the laity, the requirement of “the indefatigable care of the elect.” This Turkic and Tocharian literature from as late as the Thirteenth Century confirms in detail Saint Augustine’s depiction of the Manichaean illuminati in his Confessions. Augustine explains the dietary requirements of the elect, that they consumed vegetarian food supposed to contain a high proportion of the particles of light from the Pleroma that were trapped in matter. So too among the Uighur elect, the preferred table consisted of “plants with a high content of light, such as cucumbers and melons, wheat bread and… water or fruit juice.”
Rudolph’s section on the Mandaeans, lately of southern Iraq but largely driven into exile since Gulf War II (many Mandaeans now live in the USA), bears the title, “A Relic.” Given their geographical situation, a Manichaean origin of the Mandaean religion seems likely although the Mandaeans do not identify themselves as Manichaeans. As Rudolph affirms, the word manda means “knowledge.” The Mandaeans are by self-designation “knowers,” whose rich literature reproduces the full range of eschatological motifs articulated in the Nag Hammadi cache as well as in the Manichaean scriptures. Like the Elchasaites, in whose religious dispensation Mani began life, the Mandaeans are Baptists who, rejecting Christ, yet revere John the Baptist. The Mandaean religion, like Manichaeism, is dualistic in the sense of depicting existence as the battleground between a good deity of the light and an evil deity of the darkness, with the latter temporarily holding the world in his grasp.
IV. Before switching to Giovanni Filoramo it will be worth quoting one of Rudolph’s concluding statements, from the section of Gnosis devoted to “Consequences of Gnosis.” Rudolph refers to “the more or less conscious, sometimes even amateurish, reception of gnostic ideas and fragments of systems in modern syncretistic-theosophic sects.” Assessing the ambiguities, Rudolph writes: “It is difficult to prove continuity in any detail, as the connecting links are often ‘subterranean’ channels, or else the relationships are based on reconstructions of the history of ideas which have been undertaken especially in the history of philosophy.” Rudolph then mentions – and the reader will detect some sympathy in the remark – Baur’s Christliche Gnosis (1835), which “treats, in accordance with its theme, not only of the anti-gnostic representatives of the early Christian ‘philosophy of religion,’ but also exhaustively of the ‘ancient Gnosis and later philosophy of religion,’ dealing with Jakob Böhme, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and especially Hegel, as its heirs.” As in the case of certain remarks by Jonas, one has the strong suspicion, concerning these words, that they address obliquely Voegelin’s thesis, which is, in part, based on Baur’s study.
Rudolph tends to withhold evaluation, taking a purely descriptive or scientific approach to his topic. Filoramo, like Jonas, is more apt to make an evaluation and to guess at motives, but this is not to assess A History of Gnosticism as anything but objective. In a chapter called “The Gnostic Imagination,” Filoramo explores the meaning of Gnosis and sketches in the psychology that the term implies. “Gnosis,” Filoramo writes, “is the ‘redemption of the interior man,’ that is, the purification of the spiritual being and at the same time knowledge of the Whole.” Referring to The Gospel of Truth, with its explanation of “the call from above,” Filoramo remarks that in the Gnostic texts, the term Gnosis “has become synonymous with epignosis, recognition of one’s own true reality,” which he glosses as “the ontological self that constitutes and is the basis of reality” of “the interior man.”
In responding to the call – in recognizing himself – the Gnostic affirms that his subjective sense of belonging to a minority of the elect is actually the same as objective reality. The Gnostic accesses the secret knowledge through the grace, as it were, of divine revelation. But, as Filoramo notes, “from the Gnostic point of view, revelation is possible only because within the Gnostic there somehow pre-exists a disposition, a capacity, a potential fitted for testing and getting to know that particular reality.” Filoramo hesitates to go so far, but the thesis that Gnostic election is no more than an auto-probative claim of moral superiority belongs to his definition of Gnosis. The opportunity for mischief obviously conditions the Gnostic claim. Filoramo does link Gnosticism with the increasing prominence in Late Antiquity of the hyperanthropos or superman. The pattern goes back to Alexander, whose developing egomania included the idea of his godhead, possibly as an incarnation of Dionysus. It continued in the charisma of magus-types like Simon and Apollonius and in the delusions of one or two emperors; but it was a larger phenomenon.
The basic Gnostic myth implies that the elect person is a god: When the catastrophe occurred in the Pleroma, sparks of godhead became imprisoned in the world of matter. The elect enjoy their ontological difference from others by possessing such a spark as their soul. Posing the question, “Isn’t the Gnostic saved by nature,” Filoramo answers with another question – “Isn’t it precisely the awareness of this eternally preordained salvation that makes possible [Gnosticism’s] ambivalent ethics [of] an ascetism that seeks to cancel out the very root of our desires and a depraved antinomianism that mocks the laws of this world and its rulers?”
“Perhaps Jonas was right,” Filoramo opines, “to emphasize the anarchic and nihilistic character of a naturally rebellious ethic in search of a metaphysical liberty, which exists absolutely, [and] in itself.” Yet, as Filoramo reminds readers in his closing remarks, the personal side of Gnosticism, in distinction to its doctrinal side, remains only sketchily filled in: “If modern enquiry were possible, it would be… interesting to know how self-aware the average Gnostic was.” Filoramo guesses generously that his “average Gnostic” was simply someone in quest of the divine, a not ignoble disposition. The objection arises automatically, once given the doctrine. The whole of Late Antiquity was in quest of the divine and the Gnostics, even at their zenith, were a minority although an influential one. It is not simply that the Gnostic goes in search of divinity that differentiates him from everyone else; it is that he already knows where to find divinity – within himself. Indeed, the Gnostic himself is divine.
We can call on Saint Augustine for support in the contention that the Gnostic claim of superiority requires no special intelligence for its allure to be effective. In the Confessions, Augustine rehearses the story of Faustus, a lecturer, who enjoyed renown in the Gnostic community. His reputation held Faustus out to be an extraordinary wise and learned man who could answer any questions that an auditor – a kind of Gnostic-in-waiting – might pose concerning obscurities of the doctrine. When Augustine finally met and spoke with Faustus, he experienced keen disappointment. Faustus, although a nice person, knew very little. He exhibited particular deficiency in scientific knowledge and in logic. At most he could respond to inquiries with memorized answers that might or might not be pertinent to the examiner. One might sum him up, following Augustine’s description, as a dullard in service for the cause.
Gnosticism remains radically different from both the emerging Christianity of Late Antiquity and the lingering Paganism of the same age in respect to its adjustment to existence. Christians and Pagans find ways to reconcile themselves to the order of being. Christians and Pagans find nourishment in the structure of existence. For Gnostics, the material world – existence – is toxic and God stands radically alien to its realm. For pagans, God everywhere interpenetrates nature while for Christians, God, despite being transmundane, God contrives to descend into the material world through incarnation so as to communicate in the flesh with those who seek him. For Christians, inheriting the Jewish view, God is also the benevolent Creator of a world that is, itself, good, over which God places humanity in stewardship. Christian heresiologists and pagan denouncers of Gnosticism converged in condemning the Gnostics for their body-execration and world-revilement. One Pagan, Plutarch, wrote that the body was a temple of god. Plutarch’s philosophical grandfather Plato asserted that the body was the macrocosmic analogue of the organismic cosmos. Being is good, Plato affirmed. All is one, Plotinus added.
Scholarship rediscovered Gnosticism early in the Nineteenth Century. The mid-Twentieth Century saw the heyday of that scholarship. Curiosity about Gnosticism persists and grows. Novelist Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) is not scholarship, but the success, including screen adaptation, of the book witnesses the popular interest in Gnosticism of recent years. It is precisely as an antinomian symbol that Gnosticism makes its appeal in the context of liberal mass entertainment, even where the term is not used. In the previous essay to this one, I argued that the Gnostic myth is a variety of scapegoat-myth. The Da Vinci Code is also a scapegoat-myth, making use of the latent anti-Christian sentiment in liberalism to focus reader-resentment on figures that represent normative religion (the Catholic Church and some of its lay orders), and in raising as its heroes the ancient Gnostics and their medieval Paulician and Cathar descendants.
A proliferating modern literature concerns the fictitious bloodline of Christ, who, according to the story, escaped crucifixion, espoused Mary Magdalene, and found asylum from his persecutors in Southern Gaul. The offspring of Jesus became the Merovingian royals. Possession of this “blood” functions in the same way as the possession of the “spark” does in the various Gnostic discourses, to mark out the possessor as ontologically superior to other people, and perhaps more than human, even divine. It is Runciman’s “spiritual aristocracy,” self-elected. As in the case of the Gnostic texts themselves, the very arbitrariness of the confabulations makes them alluring; they startle and dismay and invite the concession that “no one could make this up.” These theories have found advocates in Barbara Thiering (Jesus the Man, 1990) and the trio of Baigent, Lee, and Lincoln (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 1982). The currency of such theories suggests that the impulses generative of the Gnostic view, especially the requirement of many people for a second reality, remain in place.
Afterthoughts 2015: I have added a few paragraphs and extended a few others, but otherwise I have left the essay more or less unchanged from its original form when it appeared a few years ago at The Brussels Journal. If I undertook to rewrite it thoroughly, which I have not, I might put greater emphasis than in the standing version on the objective character of the studies carried out and written up by Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo. Indeed on revisiting them, I am struck even more than on previous occasions by the calmness and dispassion of their endeavors. The original over-title of the four essays (this one being third in the sequence) was “Gnosticism from a non-Voegelinian perspective,” which now strikes me as a bit awkward, which is why I have dropped it. The reason for that over-title, however, was a good one. Voegelin criticizes Gnosticism aggressively. To understand Voegelin’s critique, readers first need an objective sense of the Gnostic phenomenon – and this is given more than adequately by the three scholars covered in the essay. I would like, then, to return to Jonas’ characterization of the spiritual experience from which the Gnostic conviction grows. I will do the same with Filoramo. In addition, I would like to cite remarks by E. R. Dodds (1893 – 1979) on the topic of Late-Antique religiosity as a response to an increasing level of alienation or “anxiety” in the Imperial centuries.
Jonas added the Epilogue to the third edition (English, 1963) of The Gnostic Religion. The Epilogue carries the subtitle, “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism.” Jonas opens with the declaration that his venture in comparison is purely “experimental.” He admits that his juxtapositions will likely befall most readers as arbitrary, at first blush. Existentialism, after all, is “of our own day, conceptual, sophisticated, and eminently ‘modern’ in more than the chronological sense”; while Gnosticism is of “a misty past, mythological, crude – something of a freak even in its own time.” Nevertheless, as Jonas puts it, “My contention is that the two have something in common, and that this ‘something’ is such that its elaboration… may result in a reciprocal illumination of both.” This suspicion of a reciprocally illuminative relation grew on Jonas gradually over the decades of his study in both fields: “When… I turned to the study of Gnosticism… I found that the viewpoints… I had acquired in the school of Heidegger enabled me to see aspects of gnostic thought that had been missed before.” Jonas continues, “The extended discourse with ancient nihilism proved – to me at least – a help in discerning and placing the meaning of modern nihilism.”
More than that, Jonas began to suspect that Existentialism served so well in the analysis of modern problems because it issued, a symptom, from those problems. This thought presented itself only as a suspicion, but, as Jonas intuited it, a type of suspicion worth pursuing. Jonas’ framework is admirably non-dogmatic and tentative. Readers should approach its discoveries respectfully. Jonas remarks, for example, on a little-notice historical parallelism: Late Antiquity, like the Modern Period, steadily re-modeled its cosmology in the direction from organism and freedom to mechanism and fatality. From the organismic cosmos of the Timaeus, the Late-Antique centuries move towards the increasingly clockwork-like Ptolemaic system. Under this change, the influence of the heavens becomes something like an implacable decree – a “Fatum,” to follow Jonas’ descriptive word-choice.
Let us mindfully attend Jonas’ argument a bit further: Rather than being an image of a lawful and purposeful cosmos, the machine-model, on the contrary, begins to suggest something else. If it were the case that, as the modern mentality sees it, “the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose by the pattern of its order, nor his goodness by the abundance of created things, nor his wisdom by their fitness, nor his perfection by the beauty of the whole – but reveals solely his power by its magnitude, its spatial and temporal immensity”; then so would it have been in Antiquity. Likewise if in Antiquity, “extension, or the quantitative, [were] the one essential attribute left to the world,” then of necessity to the extent that “the world has anything at all to tell of the divine, it [would do] so through this property”; and so would it be again in the Modern Period. In either case, “what magnitude can tell of is power.” Where power is the absolute principle, the only value is “mastery.”
Jonas indeed sees this reduction of the universe, under the modern perception, to power as one of the sources of emergent nihilism. Bringing this thesis to the question of Existentialism, Jonas writes: “The essence of existentialism is a certain dualism, an estrangement between man and the world… A cosmic nihilism would be the condition in which some of the characteristic traits of existentialism might evolve.” What enables Jonas to formulate his hypothesis is his study of history: “There is one situation… where – on a level untouched by anything resembling modern scientific thought – that condition [‘acosmic nihilism’] has been realized and lived out with all the vehemence of a cataclysmic event. That is the gnostic movement.” When the ego views reality only as the “mindlessness” of an implacable force then that same ego must regard the laws of nature or Natural Law as repugnant. That ego becomes obsessed with the problem of how to extricate himself from his hopelessness, or rather, as he experiences it, the perverse unwillingness of reality to heed his wishes. Power being the only possible response to power under this perception, the ego reaches the stage of an active (but really, reactive) “gnostic antinomianism.” The ego now wills against necessity. Jonas quotes Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in evidence as exemplars of the condition of total alienation expressing itself as “the subversion of nomos.”
The title of Irish classicist E. R. Dodds’ book Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1963 – first delivered as a lecture-series) already suggests its relevance to the present topic or congeries of topics, not least because, in alluding to W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety,” it hints at a parallelism linking Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Like Jonas, Dodds, in examining the considerable and disparate documentation of his chosen period of study of “Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” detected a theme of cosmic alienation and pessimism. Late Antiquity inherited from the classical world the dichotomy of heaven and earth, which, while distinguishable, were not entirely separable: They constituted, indeed, the cosmic unity. “As time went on,” Dodds writes, “this traditional antithesis between the celestial world and the terrestrial was more and more heavily emphasized and it was increasingly used to point a moral.” What was that moral? According to Dodds, it was the thesis of terrestrial meaninglessness. We see this thesis first, not in explicitly religious writing, but in intellectual satire, such as that of Lucian in his Icaromennipus. The same thesis soon acquires a specifically religious expression, most acutely in Gnosticism.
When terrestrial life devolves to an impression of ineluctable wretchedness, the notion that the world is the creation of a benevolent creator acquires the flavor of a contradiction. Dodds writes: “Where we find the visible cosmos set in opposition to God, the opposing principle may be described in any or all of three ways: (1) as Matter or ‘Darkness,’ conceived as a substance not created by God and resistant to his will; (2) as Fate, whose agents are the planetary demons… or finally (3) as a personal evil principle, the lord of this world and in some versions its creator.” In the last, we recognize the Valentinian myth, according to which this world is the secondary creation of a jealous copycat sub-creator, the Demiurge, or Yaldabaoth.
Dodds points out that at least two of the three anti-cosmic themes crop up in passages of canonical Scripture. As Dodds is trying, for admirable reasons, not to take sides but only accurately to assess, he omits to comment except occasionally and in passing on the essential difference between these themes, as they dominate in Gnostic discourse, and as they appear in fleeting contexts in Scripture. In respect of imperfection, the Gnostic’s attitude is one of indignation and impatience; the Gnostic identifies his resentment over the ontological quality of limitation as a trespass against his integrity by an actively hostile and unjust agency. The Gnostic, as Twenty-First Century people say, is “offended” – by reality. The Pagan or Christian, on the other hand, takes to heart the Logos or the Good Word; he adjusts himself to reality, waiting patiently for the total making-good of imperfection, whose advent, however, is indefinitely delayed. Therefore the Pagan or Christian waits, but while he waits, he lives. The Pagan or Christian also carefully remarks his own moral imperfections, concerning which he can blame no one save himself, while their rectification need suffer no delay. The Pagan or Christian lives in an interval; he is not a social-justice warrior looking for a swift and definitive victory over evil, with legislative validation and penalties for non-conformance in the aftermath.
Faith, in the Pagan or Christian sense, implies waiting and hoping. In Thessalonians Paul says that men must “wait for [God’s] son to come from heaven.” There is no schedule for the Second Coming, but men must live in “hope.” That same “hope” indeed requires deferral; it draws nourishment from the tension in deferral, indefinite deferral. Stoics also have an eschatology, but here again the moral individual must accommodate himself to what is, as in the famous dictum of Epictetus: “Some things are in our control and others not.” Gnostics actively agitate for Apocalypse Now through the swift annihilation of the cosmic torture-house and the re-establishment of “Fullness”; should anyone advise the Gnostic to exercise patience, he will feel redoubled the offense that he already takes in the persistence of reality. Similarly Pagans and Christians acknowledge epistemological humility: They “see as through a glass darkly”; but the Gnostic knows that he knows with godlike certainty.
Filoramo devotes a chapter to “The Gnostic Imagination,” in which he undertakes something like a phenomenology of the radical dualist mentality. Once the investigator pares away the layers of baroque syncretism that encrust the manifestation of the common Gnostic myth, one discovers a basic story: “The fate of the divine spark present in humanity and its fall into a hostile world of shadows, where it forgets its true home, while unconsciously longing to return there; its wanderings and hopes, and the eventual arrival of a Saviour who will reveal its true origin and thus enable it to regain consciousness of its essential alienation from this world of shadows.” Taken that far one can feel sympathy, which Filoramo certainly does. In the case of the central term Gnosis, however, Filoramo points to the “profound transformation” of its earlier, ordinary meaning in Gnostic usage. The word now denotes “a form of meta-rational knowledge, which is the gift of the divinity and has in it the power to save the one who achieves it.” For the Gnostic, as Filoramo writes, knowing is the same as becoming, “to be transformed through enlightenment into the actual object of knowledge.”
Filoramo takes seriously the charges of indecency made against some of the Gnostic sects, not only by the Christian heresiologists, but indeed by other Gnostics. He thus credits the famous autobiographical account by Epiphanius of Salamis (310 – 403) concerning his sojourn among one group of Alexandrian Gnostics, not as indicting Gnosticism generically but as illustrating how the doctrine of pre-salvation, through possession of the spark, made Gnostic morality ambiguous. “Isn’t it precisely the awareness of this eternally preordained salvation,” he poses, “that makes possible [the] two extremes: an asceticism that seeks to cancel out the very root of our desires and a depraved antinomianism that mocks the laws of this world and its rulers?” Filoramo leaves his question-mark unanswered, but the implication is apparent enough: Gnosticism predisposes the individual not to adjust sanely to the conditions of reality but to embrace extreme practices that are effectively in rebellion against the normative order of things.
Filoramo’s analysis of the Gnostic meaning of Gnosis might be the most succinct and impressive single observation in the scholarship of the topic. The Gnostic becomes the thing that he knows. In modern parlance, the Gnostic “identifies” with an ideal image of himself, which he then claims to be – and he expects others to acknowledge his claim and all of the perquisites that would go with his imagined station. That, incidentally, is how Gustave Flaubert represented Gnosticism in his magnum opus The Temptation of Saint Antony (authoritative version, 1874). Several Gnostic figures appear before the Saint in the course of Flaubert’s book-length theater-of-the-mind, including Mani and Valentine. Mani tells Antony that “animals, in procreation, imprison [the spark] in flesh – Therefore, avoid women! Or rather, ensure that they are not fertile.” Valentine raves that “the world is the work of a delirious God.” But, he says, “One day, Acharamoth, reaching the highest region, will unite herself to the Saviour; the fire hidden in the world will annihilate all matter, will devour its own self, and men changed into pure spirits will wed angels.”
Flaubert’s Gnostics are intoxicated by the complexities and minutiae of their systems, the knowledge of which they flaunt before the Saint. They are experts – but they are also magicians, rehearsing the formula that will transform the base metal of existence into the gold of utopia. The plain sense of Scripture leaves the Gnostic unsatisfied. He must make an allegory of it, the more elaborate, and the less comprehensible by any outsider; the better it will be, as he sees it.