The Basic Problem of All Gnosticism

Gnosticism presupposes that we can know reality, enough to master it, surmount it, and indeed perfect it, under our own steam. The basic Gnostic premise is that, while normal people can’t know enough to master and surmount and so perfect life, the initiates can.

So stated, it’s a foolish notion. What, any single human and – we all know this – defective mind on a tiny planet in the outer arm of one galaxy among trillions such can encompass the whole cosmos, and so on its own recognizance plumb the ultimate ontological depths thereof? It is to laugh.

The fundamental attitude of Gnosticism is epistemological pride.

The fundamental attitude of faith is epistemological humility.

Which attitude ends up conferring more knowledge? The question answers itself.

29 thoughts on “The Basic Problem of All Gnosticism

  1. Gnostics when asked about how they know all this is: “Just trust me bro”.

    Many a forgery in the first few centuries involved Gnostic teaching in stories pulled out of thin air. Like one involving a talking cross following behind and so on. And which mismatch the coherent genuine testimonies of the Gospels

    Forgers who invented those fables must have guffawed when making up those falsehoods.

    • Some may have guffawed, but I suspect many others mistook imagination for inspiration. This is easy to do, and may be why we moderns treat these two words as synonyms. I don’t doubt that there can still be religious enthusiasm, but do wish it was easier to tell inspiration and imagination apart.

      • The Bible compared to the Rig Veda is a very grounded book. Real places, real people, real cultures, realistic personalities and so on.

        The Book of Kings and the power dynamics represented there is very realistic.

        Gnostic fables seem more closer to the Rig Veda in their comparative lack of groundedness.

  2. I don’t know if believing in all knowledge is required for them to pursue their gnostic ideas. What they mostly want to is feel they know more than anyone in town. We are small people, in the end. Even our grandiosities can be tepid.

  3. Magical thinking is child’s play. In the adult who hasn’t developed the maturity of personality attained by many others (such as the narcissist), the fantasy world is created and must be asserted, for its denial crashes the tenuous and fragile mini-me, which is all these people have inside them to withstand the vagaries and tribulations of mortal existence.

  4. It is not at all hard to become proud of one’s faith. I’m not suggesting we all decorate our autos with Coexist bumper stickers, but epistemological pride is hard to avoid. If I did not think my beliefs were better that the alternative beliefs, why would I believe what I believe? We can (and should) feel humility with regard to the extent of our knowledge (actual and potential), but I think we are bound to be partial to our own opinions.

    • We believe in a Revelation from the True God. That it is from Him is the only reason to believe it. If one thinks one can take a ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ view that supercedes this, good luck with that.

      • I agree with you. That’s why I said faith shows humility in the scope of the knowledge it claims, not the depth. What it claims to know it claims to know with a high degree of confidence.

    • “If I did not think my beliefs were better that the alternative beliefs, why would I believe what I believe?”

      You are a philosopher. Most are not.

      For them, belief is not so much individual but rather social. Most beliefs come from other people, not individual research. Which other people to believe? The ingroup other people, of course. So beliefs are usually about memberships in groups. These are /mypeople/ so I will believe whatever they say. Similarly, outward signals of believing them signals I belong to /mypeople/, to the ingroup. There are handful of people who take their beliefs seriously, but most people will just wear beliefs as fashion items. Or more like tribal uniforms.

      Evidence: very few people convert from one religion or church to another these days. They are born into one, have their social circles, social life in one, so they just mostly accept whatever people in these circles believe.

  5. Christian Gnosticism is particularly wretched. Orthodoxy says explaining the Cross is relatively (in the pertinent sense) easy, while carrying the Cross is very, very hard. The Gnostics have mostly inverted this, believing explaining the Cross is very hard, mystical, and esoteric, admitting of various and sundry interpretations. After arriving at this special knowledge carrying the Cross is a tea party they say.

  6. “The fundamental attitude of Gnosticism is epistemological pride.”

    I would even call it epistemological supremacy. Their way or the highway. James Lindsay, a non believer, just gave excellent talks on Gnosticism, and was basically making this same point. Recommended watching:

    • They are. Everyone is, and must. And of course everyone must operate on faith in the preponderant reliability of his own knowledge. But Gnosticism – in common with some other heresies – thinks that Gnostic initiates can perfect themselves – or the world & the social order (in practice, these amount to the same thing, for each self is embedded and embodied in a world and a society; so that the only way to perfect the self is to perfect its world (or escape it)) – in virtue of their esoteric knowledge. The esoteric initiate to the higher knowledge cannot have undertaken the course of initiation except under a presupposition that it would confer upon him greater, better, or more knowledge than he could have attained as an ordinary man. Having been initiated, then, he cannot but think he knows better than ordinary men. That is what I meant by epistemological pride.

      The ordinary man might believe truly that he knows a lot more about things than most other men of his sort. Bonald, i.e., knows way more than I do about physics, and he would be right to think that he does. Likewise I know more about finance than most people.

      But ordinary men – healthy minded men – generally don’t think they’ve got life, the world, and God pretty much figured out. On the contrary, they take themselves with a grain of salt..

      Aquinas is one such. Of all men ever, he was among the closest to having pretty much figured things out. And his final conclusion about his profound comprehensive erudition was that it was so much straw, compared to Reality.

      So, the final conclusion of his quest to comprehend reality was to agree that he was in and by his own lights nowise competent thereto. So he acceded at the last to untrammelled adoration, worship, and mutual presence. Not, i.e., so as to have repudiated all his philosophical work, but rather by worship to have crowned it – thereby earning his celestial crown.

      Such is the goal of all philosophy, properly construed.

  7. When I first encountered Voegelin’s writing on modern gnosticism, his use of the term seemed somehow anachronistic, but as I read more of him and thought about it, it perfectly describes so many contemporary thought habits, especially scientism. Human cognition is limited, and no one possesses a seamless view of the whole of reality (though gnostics tend to think they do).

  8. Note that Gnostics are not a monolithic group, and many thinkers decried as Gnostics don’t apply that label to themselves. However, epistemological arrogance is a problem of humans, not a problem specifically of Gnostics.

    Is the Catholic Church (or the Eastern Orthodox Church) any less arrogant than a Gnostic? I presume members of those churches would argue that their epistemologies are more humble. Exactly what makes an epistemology reasonable is of course a topic too deep for a brief comment, but I suppose I should post about that later.

  9. Pingback: The Religion of Gnosticism | Σ Frame

  10. I fiinally admit the term Gnosticism has become meaningless then because what people call by that term today never has any relation to ancient Gnosticism. Its for the best. These groups didn’t call themselves Gnostics anyway, as if that were a brand of religion or a denomination. When they used the term they used it as Paul used it, “someone with knowledge knows an idol is nothing” Paul wrote. So also they, when they thought they knew better than other groups called themselves gnostikos. But its just a way of saying “I know better than you” same as when Catholics claim to know better than Prots, Orthodox than Catholics, Prots than both. What modern bloggers call Gnosticism is either New Age or Atheism. It doesn’t even share the same Antisemitic tinge as ancient Gnosticism because most of the adherents of this new false “Gnosticism” are Jewish.

  11. Ancient Gnostics in fact claimed revelation came to them by way of tradition. They didn’t deny revelation and seek to figure the works out by reason as tou describe here. Whether their secret tradition was real or incented by a charleton they belived it to be a real tradition, same as Catholics do with their fake tradition. Gnosticism clung to a notion of apoatolic sucession also, because their claim was such and such an apostle revelwaed these scret doctrines which were passed to the bishops. Same as Catholicism with its fake secret doctrines. Then also Catholicism stole some of their secret doctrines (secret in that they aren’t in the Bible) like eating fish on Fridays and not meat. The real reason for this eas a Gnostic belief that celibacy is necessary to salvation and along with this that no animal that procreates sexually should be eaten. Fish procreate like plants, no physical touch, so are not meat when meat is defined as flesh of animals that physically hump. So they only allowed eating fish. Catholics kept this Gnostic doctrine but relegated it to Fridays only and then Fridays in Lent only. The backbone of Monasticism is also the Gnostic doctrine of celibacy as necessary ro salvation.

  12. It happened a lot of times that after I disproved some liberal ideals, they just flat out told me “you gotta believe in something”.

    Indeed you have to. “Life sucks, then you die, and the same will happen with all your descendants forever” is just overly a bleak prospect.

    People need hope.

    I more and more tend to see Christianity as a vaccine for the mind. For example, Augustine worked out a vaccine against superstition. You gotta believe in something, and unvaccinated minds end up believing in very irrational things. Mostly due to the need for hope.

    Interestingly, smarter gnostics have longer time-scales for hope. Geeks believe future technology 100 years from now will save us. Stupider gnostics believe scientology can do it right now.

    • There are lots of flavors of Gnosticism, to be sure. But it seems to me that they all have certain things in common, of which I had only one in mind as the most basic when I was composing the OP. Notice in what follows that everything of the common Gnostic characteristics I now here notice hangs upon and indeed derives inexorably from the first – which warrants and so earns the nomen “Gnostic:”

      1. Confidence in merely human esoteric knowledge as sufficient to radical ontological and personal improvement and repair (this being the basic problem I noticed in the OP).
      2. Initiatory grades in a secret, or at least exclusive, society that has a social mission of reform or revolution.
      3. Radical critique and contempt of what has been normal, customary, traditional, that reduces ultimately, and proximally as one ascends the initiatory ladder, to general nihilism and hatred of the cosmos.
      4. Condescension as of a new and superior type of man – as of an elect class of beings, that has transcended all others – toward the traditional national cult, and indeed toward the traditional nation, verging on scorn, or even revulsion.
      5. Advocacy of radical social or religious reformation, that – on account of the aforementioned scorn verging on revulsion – is willing if need be to contemplate, and even advocate, the destruction of millions of Old Men, their wives and their children.
      6. Old Men – not, i.e., those of the Gnostic Elect – considered as Low Men – as, i.e., not quite yet fully human – and, so, doomed to fall in any case and sooner or later before the scythe of history in favor of the New Men, the High Men. So, why not go ahead and kill them?
      7. Chiliastic expectations of an incipient New Age, in which New Men shall constitute a New Society.
      8. The foregoing often result in use of magic ritual – or, at least, magical thinking – to accomplish spiritual and social renovation.

      I’m probably missing something. Any of us regulars here can I’m sure supply numerous examples off the top of his head, of each of the items above, from the last 3 millennia of history – and, of course, from the last 3 decades.

      The typical reliance of Gnosticism on magic of some sort (scientism, e.g.) usually soon dooms Gnostic sects, for magic just can’t cut it when confronted with recalcitrant things like … well, like hard rain, even, let alone earthquake, fire, or flood. Or war. Or cable outages. Or dirty diapers, forsooth (is this why our betters don’t want us having so many babies?). Reality bites, hard. Gnostic fantasy can last for a while when times are flush, the selection pressure has eased off, and the living seems easy. But when the going gets hard, why, then, the atheists get scarce and noisome and repudiated, in foxholes, trenches, furrows, ruts, gutters, creeks and rivers, basements, and foundations. Aye, and then even in high government offices, believe it or not; for, all things flow up the hierarchy.

      Gnosticism is a stubborn but feeble flower, because it is generated entirely by and relies entirely upon man’s native intellects. Which are always with us.

      But, which are feeble reeds, before the whirlwind that preceded and made them, and that shall soon destroy them.

      Honestly. What are they teaching the children in school these days? It’s all in Job; all in Job. And Ecclesiastes. And, indeed, in the First Commandment, upon which all others hang.

      As for my equivalence of Gnosticism to atheism: well, duh. If man – or the New Man – is the measure of all things, then is he also the measure of God, and of the whole cosmos. Man then is God; or, at least, as close as can be hoped for. In that titanic misprision, limitless in the depth and breadth of its error, lies the whole disaster of the human problem.

      Almost all ontological and thus moral error boils down to mistaking something less than ultimate for the Ultimate. It lies in mistaking some profane thing for the Holy One.

      • “Chiliastic expectations of an incipient New Age, in which New Men shall constitute a New Society.”

        This is Judaism and orthodox Christianity due to its Jewishness. Gnosticism just believes in escapint the cyxle of reincarnation to go to the 8th heaven above the 7 heavens of the creator. But of course modern Gnosticism is Jewish and follows their utopian messianism as does Christianity. After all the Jews xan’t ackbowledge a God higher than the Jewish god which is the whole point ultimately of Gnosticism, that the Jewish god is trash and dalvation is to escape from reincarnating back into his sucky realm, and one does this via celibacy not chasing becoming the other gender as Jews do.

      • You badly misunderstand orthodox Christian eschatology. Christians do indeed expect a new heaven and a new earth, but only after this cosmos has come to an end.

  13. Hi Kristor,

    Thanks for unpacking your views on this rather thorny subject . For my part, I discern three types of gnosticism- or, better, perhaps, three aspects of gnostic life and thought- which I will provisionally refer to as :

    1) Unitive / Nondual insight or “the good”
    2) Mythical/metaphysical beliefs or “the bad”
    3) Unconventional/licentious lifestyles or “the ugly”

    These are not by any means mutually exclusive – quite the contrary- but seem to be found in any combination which may emphasize any one or two of these facets to the exclusion of the other(s). Nevertheless, it seems to me that the primary reason for the push back against gnosticism in the early church – and the primary reason for viewing it with suspicion today- has more to do with numbers 2 and 3 (beliefs & lifestyles) rather than the unitive and nondual element which is, in many respects, merely implicit in the gnostic texts . Thus , rank and file gnostics may be (or may have been) very enthusiastic about 2 and 3 without really experiencing the cutting insight of number 1 (just as fundamentalist Christians may be very enthusiastic, in a purely egocentric way, about their “Chrisitan worldview” and “Christian values” without, in fact, knowing anything about contemplative prayer or mysticism.)

    • That’s a good way to parse almost any religion. 1 is mysticism, 2 is theology, 3 is praxis.

      Not sure, but it seems to me that liturgy and prayer span all three of those categories.

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