By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world,
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
………– Geoffrey Hill, Genesis
Most of the time people only remember the famous quote written on Marx’s tomb: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” But what world? Is it some literal vision of our material being, the place of our earth, of our lives here on this planet; or, might it better be the form-World the crime-World of our ideological blinders that impose the law of death upon our hearts and minds? Isn’t it the figural rather than literal world that Marx wanted to change, the world of men’s minds where the true revolution begins and ends? We’ve seen how the literal enforcement of that dictum produced neither a utopian society nor a nostalgic return to some primitive communist paradise. Marx would look upon the world of wealth and Capital as an alien world dominating the workers:
The world of wealth expands and faces him as an alien world dominating him, and as it does so his subjective poverty, his need and dependence grow larger in proportion. His deprivation and its plenitude match each other exactly.1
So what exactly did Marx mean in Das Kapital when he said: “Socialism must not become the end but the means through which we change the world we live in“? Enemies of both spiritual and secular forms of Gnosticisms have a long and varied (non-) history. Eric Voeglin one of the first but not last arch-reactionaries of the last century would tell us that the more we “come to know about the gnosis of antiquity, the more it becomes certain that modern movements of thought, such as progressivism, positivism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, are variants of gnosticism. The continuous interest in this problem goes back to the 1930’s, when Hans Jonas published his first volume of Gnosis und Spätantiker Geist on ancient gnosis and Hans Urs von Balthasar his Prometheus on modern Gnosticism.”1
Of late reading Luciano Pellicani’s Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Terrorism one observes a well defined extreme reactionary view of the past two hundred years of revolutionary thought culminating in Communism. Astute and on the mark his analysis cuts to the quick of our current malaise on the Left, yet it does so as an enemy not as a friend. So one reads with a doubled thought, one appraises both the tenuous threads of difference between the ancient and modern variants, and one also seeks out the quickened appraisal of its political manifestation in those revolutionary intellectuals he raises to critical awareness – who brought to bare this potential for transformation and change he terms the revolutionary gnosis.
His basic thesis is straightforward, he sees the roots of revolutionary Communism as a project qualiﬁed as both a “gnostic” and Utopian endeavor, because it is animated by the belief that there exists a speculative knowledge— dialectical science—that is capable of indicating the method for eradicating alienation and changing the ontological nature of reality. It presents itself as the last avatar of the savior-saved myth, in which the desire for self redemption of the ancient gnosis combines with expectation of a rupture with the past, which is so radical that it is capable of putting an end to the prehistory of humanity and restoring the great universal harmony destroyed by the desire for proﬁt.2
But why is the extreme radical wing of conservative (reactionary) politics so interested in the “gnostic” chiliastic vision? What do they see in this ancient heresy that they want to impute to those leftwing intellectuals of the Marxist traditions and their politics of subversion? To delve into the early Christian, Jewish, or, even later Islamic and Sufic Gnosticisms, those secret histories of Basiledes, Valentinus, Marcion, Seth, and all the other hetero-soteriological systems, where the notions of a separate knowledge or gnosis replacing faith (pistis) and belief would lead this post too far afield, yet we must at least begin with a compressed if fictive narration of this early system of religious and even acosmic vision of God, Man, and the Evil crime-World of the ancient Gnostics.
A Short History of Gnosticism
Of Gnostic thought or thoughts, of the prodigious systems constructed by various dedicated and truth-seeking beings, nothing remains, therefore, but fragments. How much authentic and objective knowledge of the political theories of Trotsky, of Makhno or Rosa Luxemburg would we possess today if the only surviving records were a few more or less complete quotations from the official history of the Soviet Communist Party, under a chapter heading: `On renegades and deviationist traitors’? That is virtually the position we are in with the Gnostics, but for same very rare texts discovered in the last century and a more recent collection which came to light in the caves of Upper Egypt after the last war. Even if the extracts quoted by certain Church Fathers seem fair, and reveal a sincere desire to understand Gnosticism, the fact remains that these quotations have been chosen with the specific aim of denouncing the whole teaching, and so cannot be other than partial and partisan.3
Two scholars of repute from the last century till now like Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Ioan Couliano, Moshe Idel, Elaine Pagels among others* (I need a working bibliography?) have become my sources for entering this abstruse field, where one could get lost among the strange and bewildering milieu with its riddled personalities and non-institutional fragments that until the Nag-Hammadi disclosures was only known from the Church Fathers the enemies of all forms of Gnosticism and Heresy. G.R.S. Mead, the secretary for Madame Blavatsky, and the Theosophical Society was in the late nineteen and early twentieth century one of the early scholars who began the slow reevaluation of this ancient heritage, and his works still hold a worthy place in this revitalization. It was Scholem who began rehabilitating Gnosticism as a sectarian revolt against Jewish Orthodoxy, yet as he was aware the ability to prove such a belief is beyond scholarly judgement one way or the other:
Theories that the origin of Gnosticism is to be found outside the scope of Judaism have been widely discussed. It is one of many marvels confronting the explorer in the field that scholars who have been looking far and wide to establish the source from which it all has come have been remarkably reluctant, or, rather, unwilling to allow the theory that Gnostic tendencies may have developed in the very midst of Judaism itself, whether in its classical forms or on its heterodox and sectarian fringes.4
As Couliano would tell us the perennial and frustrating quest for establishing unequivocally the “origins” of gnostic myth should be dismissed as redundant, since “any transformation of myth has by definition a cognitive origin” (xiv).7 For Couliano two criteria set the stage for both the early and late Gnostics as revolutionary figures seeking to overturn the Order of the World: first, one is the criterion of ecosystemic intelligence – that is, the degree to which the universe in which we live can be attributed to an intelligent and good cause; and secondly, the anthropic principle – that is, the affirmation of the commensurability and mutual link between human beings and the universe. (Couliano, xv) If we look at the history of Orphic, Pythagorean, Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Hermetic and other thought we see these two basic criteria being manifest within their view of the Cosmos and Man. It is against this tradition of pantheism and the moral Good that the Gnostic mythos chose to battle for an alternative form-World. In fact it would be an inversion of the Greek structure and system of the world that the Gnostics chose to overturn with their acosmic and abject rejection of this Cosmos with their appellation of the Demiurge of the Greek pantheon as the author of Evil, and the universe that he shaped as being not a realm of the Good but rather as a make-shift realm of Error and Ignorance. The Gnostics were Dualists, inheritors of the ancient religions of Zoroaster and other syncretisms.
Gnosticism as a Dualism
Dualist religions in antiquity sought to redefine, often radically, the interrelationships between the divine, human and natural worlds, commonly by identifying the source of evil in a force or forces in the divine and supernatural sphere. An ambiguous deity or one associated with death and the underworld was an obvious choice to be singled out and enthroned as an entirely evil agency or else an altogether new deity was conceptualized to fill the place of this ‘other’ god. Religions that were monist and henotheistic in orientation could develop the tendency to view this ‘other’ god as the main adversary of the creator god, effectively as an anti-god, but this process was to be accomplished in some of the systems of religious dualism. While during late antiquity Christianity and Judaism naturally strove to deny an actual godly status to the ‘other god’, heretical teachings ventured to identify his functions with that of the creator god, stating that above him, the public, normative god, there existed another, hidden god, the god of the invisible world or the world to come. Such heretical doctrines were promptly condemned for rendering the evil divine, for granting a godly status to ‘another’ god, whether confusingly understood as the oppressive creator of this world or as the ruler of the realm above and of the future.5
The term Gnostic is vague, encompassing several distinctly different meanings. But, historically speaking, it acquired a particular meaning during the early centuries of our era. On the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in Syria, Samaria and Egypt, at the moment when Christianity was feeling its way, and when so many prophets and messiahs were traveling the high roads of the Orient, founding short-lived communities here and there, certain men called Gnostics, that is to say `men who know,’ were also setting up important communities, grouped around various masters and female initiates of a teaching that was radically different from all the others. (Lecarrie, 5)
For the moment, I can do no more than sketch in the broad outlines of this complex, fascinating message, which will be drawn in greater detail throughout the text of the book. Gnosis is knowledge. And it is on knowledge – not an faith or belief – that the Gnostics rely in order to construct their image of the universe and the inferences they drew from it: a knowledge of the origin of things, of the real nature of matter and flesh, of the destiny of a world to which man belongs as ineluctably as does the matter from which he is constituted. Now this knowledge, born out of their own meditations or from the secret teachings which they claim to have had from Jesus or from mythical ancestors, leads them to see the whole of material creation as the product of a god who is the enemy of man. Viscerally, imperiously, irremissibly, the Gnostic feels life, thought, human and planetary destiny to be a failed work, limited and vitiated in its most fundamental structures. Everything, from the distant stars to the nuclei of our body-cells, carries the materially demonstrable trace of an original imperfection which only Gnosticism and the means it proposes can combat. (Lecarrie, 6)
The Gnostic Mythos of the Ancients
As we discussed above cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world, and correspondingly that of man and world. The deity of the Gnostics is absolutely transmundane (acosmic – not a part of the natural universe), its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. 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. The genesis of these lower powers, the Archons (rulers), and in general that of all the orders of being outside God, including the world itself, is a main theme of gnostic speculation, of which we shall give examples later. The transcendent God Himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of Him requires more than rational revelation (gnosis) and illumination (insight) and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms (negative theology – vita negativa). (Jonas, 43)
The radical nature of the dualism determines that of the doctrine of salvation. As alien as the transcendent God is to “this world” is the pneumatic self in the midst of it. The goal of gnostic striving is the release of the “inner man” from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The necessary condition for this is that he knows about the transmundane God and about himself, that is, about his divine origin as well as his present situation, and accordingly also about the nature of the world which determines this situation. As a famous Valentinian formula puts it,
What What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, where into we have been thrown; whereto we speed, where from we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth. (Exc. Theod. 78. 2)
This knowledge, however, is withheld from him by his very situation, since “ignorance” is the essence of mundane existence, just as it was the principle of the world’s coming into existence. In particular, the transcendent God is unknown in the world and cannot be discovered from it; therefore revelation is needed. The necessity for it is grounded in the nature of the cosmic situation; and its occurrence alters this situation in its decisive respect, that of “ignorance,” and is thus itself already a part of salvation. Its bearer is a messenger from the world of light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the Archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge “from without.” The mission of this transcendent savior begins even before the creation of the world (since the fall of the divine element preceded the creation) and runs parallel to its history. The knowledge thus revealed, even though called simply “the knowledge of God,” comprises the whole content of the gnostic myth, with everything it has to teach about God, man, and world; that is, it contains the elements of a theoretical system. On the practical side, however, it is more particularly “knowledge of the way,” namely, of the soul’s way out of the world, comprising the sacramental and magical preparations for its future ascent and the secret names and formulas that force the passage through each sphere. Equipped with this gnosis, the soul after death travels upwards, leaving behind at each sphere the psychical “vestment” contributed by it: thus the spirit stripped of all foreign accretions reaches the God beyond the world and becomes reunited with the divine substance. On the scale of the total divine drama, this process is part of the restoration of the deity’s own wholeness, which in pre-cosmic times has become impaired by the loss of portions of the divine substance. It is through these alone that the deity became involved in the destiny of the world, and it is to retrieve them that its messenger intervenes in cosmic history. With the completion of this process of gathering in (according to some systems), the cosmos, deprived of its elements of light, will come to an end. (Jonas, 45-46)
The Secular Gnosis: Romantic Revolutionaries, Progressives, and Modernity
Nihilism, that “uncanny guest” (Nietzsche) is the obverse of ancient Gnosticism, both anti-metaphysical and against all forms of transcendence; while Gnosticism is acosmic and based solely on the transcendence of this physical universe and its masters. To affirm an active nihilism would be to make out of the cosmos an inverse reversal of the ancient paradigm and instead of transcending its evil one would rather accept it and destroy it from within immanently through immanence thereby burning away the very groundless ground of its cruel logic. This is the logic of secular gnosis as it has worked its way through the Romantics, Decadents, Aesthetes, Surrealists, Batailleans, Deleuzeans, and all who seek as Couliano says to “demolish, unbuild, and build down” the Order of Things (Couliano, 249). Obviously there is no one to one ratio between the two modes of thought and being, but rather an set of tendencies all centering in on the dismantling of the Platonic tradition of Transcendence. Some of the actual artists, philosophers, poets, painters, etc. were at different extremes of both sides of the equation; so that it is more a tendency in thought and feeling rather than an explicit reduplication of these ancient systems.
Where both Gnosticism and Nihilism touch base in their modern forms is an attack on the heritage of the Jewish-Christian investment in Platonism and its traditions of transcendence. Two paths or forms of secular gnosis worked their way through the agon to demolish and obliterate the Platonic roots of transcendence; that of Idealism and Materialism, both of which would flow through political and secular life for the next two centuries. This system of inverse biblical exegesis would arise in Romanticism as if those ancient cognitive vehicles had never been expunged by the long history of the Church. Both the Romantic and the Nihilist traditions affirm the abolishment of the Platonic-Christian value system, yet both begin their affirmations of this task from opposing senses of transcendence.
As Couliano informs us the path of modern nihilism starts with a powerful substitute for transcendence in its reliance on Enlightenment Reason, but discovers through its struggles that this reliance and its valuation are based of groundless external valuations which cannot be supported. As Couliano says, “there is no metasystem in which value is defined” (Couliano, 250). Whereas Romantic nihilists would affirm the need for transcendence with their notions of the transcendental Subject, etc., the Modern Nihilists or what I’d call the tradition of base materialism affirm nothing but the absence of any form of transcendence: the acceptance of the Abyss and Death. Or as William Blake said of it: “Energy is the only Delight.” Blake influenced both traditions at various points during the past two centuries, a poet-thinker who would straddle both sides of the secular gnosis and its political overtones of revolution and struggle against the Archons.
Couliano will find in Blake’s battle of the demiurge Urizen and Los’s challenge and overturning of the rule of Newton’s merciless mechanistic logic; Shelley’s battle of Prometheus against Jupiter with the bringing of the higher gnosis-knowledge to men, both poets bringing hint of the political revolutionary appeal that would soon follow them, a hint of a new worldview where all humans will be redeemed on a transfigured or changed earth, freed from the chains of Power. Both poets would reject any form of transcendence into some unearthly realm, and remain staunch fighters for political and social freedom and revolution from below. Both poets would reaffirm that the only thing to transcend is a false view of this mundane world, for it is the “cloven fictions” of the Rulers in High Places (Religion and Government) that have kept the poor and lowly bound in the chains unable to escape the drudgery of their bound worldview.
Yet, the poet of both modern nihilism and romantic nihilism par excellence is Lord Byron who in his Cain: A Mystery rewrites the inverse biblical exegesis of gnosis for modernity. As Couliano remarks,
Cain may be considered the best systematic introduction to the study of Gnosticism and other Western Dualistic trends, for it is an extraordinary illustration of how the Genesis board game can be played at any time and will deliver outcomes that are transformations of each other. Byron, indeed, played the game starting from the (nihilistic, not gnostic) rule that the transcendence of Genesis is false and therefore its traditional exegesis ought to be reversed. He thus produced a narrative that perfectly resembles gnostic myth. (Couliano, 253).
Byron would introduce Lucifer as the agent who opens Cain’s eyes to the gnosis of the false reality he’s been asleep and chained in for too long, that the false God of this earthly paradise is none other than Yahweh, the Demiurge. Lucifer will then remind Cain that he already knows these things deep within his memory, that he will discover against the false truth of Yaweh that Lucifer is none other than the avatar of the Pleroma and the Good, etc. Lucifer takes Cain on a voyage through the Universe and teaches him that it and parallel universes are all aborted efforts of this unknowing blind god, Yahweh: the “multiplication of systems of power belonging to an unhappy creator changes suffering into a cosmic dimension of being” (Couliano, 254). Yet, unlike the Gnostics Byron’s myth of salvation leads only to the modern nihilism of an empty stripped down universe of non-meaning, where the “Mind” alone become the centered seat of a value based internally in Reason, alone and without support any moral or external value system of faith or belief. The gnosis here is of an impersonal and indifferent cosmos, one that has no need of man nor even knows that he exists. No drama, no narrative, no gods, no evil – just the absolute and unyielding emptiness of things without meaning or reason; neither irrational nor rational. In the modern gnosis of nihilism both the Greek model of a Harmonious universe of the Pythagorean spheres of a perfect Order, nor the Gnostic realm of the false demiurge who enacts his sadistic projects of hate upon the naked ape of a planet falling amid the abysses of time hold in this emptied out Cosmos of Nihilism.
In fact for many in this new realm only the vacuum of a negation of negation, a nothing that is less than zero (Zizek) that neither exists nor doesn’t, but is rather the hyperchaotic system of flux below the threshold of our quantum matrix that gives birth to the atonal music of our universe of collapse and ruin, our realm of dark light where the fundaments of dark matter and dark energy shape the baryonic matter of our sense-data like the blind force of some demented and impersonal thing; that we no longer personify this ‘thing’, append the name of demiurge or god to it is the sign of nihilism and its problematique, as well.
Couliano mentions Leopardi, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo as well but I’ll leave that for the reader to pursue. This post is a little long so will continue it and take up the philosophical and political threads in the next post….
- The Gnosis of the Political Revolutionary – Part Two
- Marx, Karl (2004-02-05). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics) (Kindle Locations 15673-15675). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
- Voegelin, Eric (2012-03-27). Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Kindle Locations 162-165). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Luciano Pellicani’s Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Terrorism (2003 by ETAS, R.C.S. Libri S.p.A., Milan, Italy)
- Jaques Lecarrie. The Gnostics. (1973 Editions Gallimard)
- GERSHOM G. SCHOLEM. Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY OF AMERICA, 1960)
- Yuri, Stoyanov (2000-08-11). The Other God (Yale Nota Bene) (Kindle Locations 90-99). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Ioan P. Couliano. The Tree of Gnosis. (Harper Collins, 1992)