Thinking through this essay I came to the realization that one of the fallacies of transforming Gnosticism and its gnosis (inner knowing) to the political sphere is to begin a diametrically inverse project that eliminates both the acosmic and soteriological stance of that ancient religion. The modern transformation of Gnosticism into a secular gnosis shifts the drama from an acosmic rejection of reality and ontologizes it into a rejection only of a specific relation to reality as bound within the specific domain of the human meaning of history.
Vitalist that he was Nietzsche would in his essay on the Use and Abuse of History for Life admit a need for history, but one guided less by some dilettante’s equivocations and degradations in which the “spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it”, but rather “we need it for life and for action…”.1 Rather than the acosmic rejection of reality Nietzsche’s philosophy always maintained an affirmative though qualified acceptance of it; and in fact formulated a theory of “amor fati” which had as its basis the total affirmation of even its most horrendous aspects.
As Ioan P. Couliano will state it our tale of secular gnosis begins with the work of Gottfried Arnold (an impact of Goethe), and Ferdinand Christian Bauer’s (1835) early work on Gnosticism. It is Bauer who began the comparison of the moderns and the ancients with a penchant toward gnosis. He sees within Hegel the heir of Valentinus. As Couliano describes it the Valentian gnosis places absolute spirit at the top of the hierarch of the Gnostic Pleroma, and the aeons are the essences through which the absolute spirit knows itself by creating a negative reflection of itself (256).2 The connection between the aeons if eros, Love. In Hegel as with the Gnostic’s portrayal of the fall of Divine Wisdom, Sophia, which “takes on the form of a break in the “Kingdom of the Son of the World” (Hegel), when the “finite spirit” (endlicher Geist) appears, which is the equivalent of the Valentinian low-quality psyche (soul)” (256). Hegel’s treatise on the “Kingdom of the Son of the World” concludes with the dialectic of the “negation of negation,” a “process of reconciliation” in which the absolute Spirit recognizes itself for what it is (256).
For Couliano Gnosticism was a cognitive pattern ever-recurring in the human Mind that appeared with each new generation and would follow its own way into our cultural matrix of possibilities. Yet, it could be channeled into a diverse and even opposing sets of relations, and in modern times it suddenly came to a head under the secularization of our religious heritage. In those two unlikely utopianism of the early twentieth century, Stalinism and Hitlerism, Communism and Fascism, one discovers the mutated thought of a secular gnosis blended to the extreme left and right poles of a strange dualism seeking to destroy one world and create another. Both would have roots in a chiliasm that manifests it at various times throughout the Christian West.
Throughout the Nineteenth Century the acosmism at the heart of the Gnostic project would remain hidden, and most of its manifestation came by way of a resurgence in Hermetic and Platonic-Neoplatonic thought rather than the world denying extreme dualism of the original Gnostics. Yet, one would see various trial runs within both poetic, literary, and political uses of this old epistemic form-World.
In our age the names that stick out as thinkers of secular gnosis are Jacob Taubes, Eric Voegelin, Ernst Topitsch, and Luciano Pellicani. For most of these authors the notion of secular gnosis was a term of derision since they sought to cast dispersion of the tradition of leftwing politics from the Enlightenment period onward, seeing in progressivism, socialism, and modernity a turn toward philistinism, decadence, and misguided power economics where value was incarnated in Gold and Capital rather than in any external sense of God or Religion. Yet, as Couliano admits even their creative misunderstanding of this tradition can be an impetus to further insights. As one of my old professors used to say one must read between the lines, and even below them to gain insight.
Some might be surprised to find the gnostic mythos centered in the seat of Enlightenment Reason, but this is just where Kant would entomb it in his Religion within the boundaries of reason (1793) essay:
The point of this secular gnosis is now termed the ‘Internal Turn’ in Philosophy away from all external authority and priority. Just here Nietzsche some years later would tell us is to be found in this movement away from external supports, grounds, and objective sources of religion and God that “uncanny guest,” nihilism is born. The “Death of God” is about this ungrounding of the external support systems of religion and morality that have guided humankind for millennia. Yet, as we’ve seen Nietzsche would do one better, he would begin an attack even on this strange guest, Reason. Slowly demolishing this inward power that had replaced God in the heart of man’s Mind.
I’m going to stop here for this post. In the next I’ll take up the work of Voegelin, and Pellicani.
- The Gnosis of the Political Revolutionary – Part One
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (2010-11-03). On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (Kindle Locations 22-24). Richer Resources Publications. Kindle Edition.
- Ioan P. Couliano. The Tree of Gnosis. (Harper Collins, 1992)