Broken from the divine harmony of herself she fell, says the tragic philosopher, and became the manifestation of matter; and the whole universe of her city, of the world, was formed out of her agony and remorse. The tragic seed from which her thoughts and actions grew was the seed of a pessimistic gnosticism.
—Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
The novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell presented a modern version of the Gnostic vision in a series of novels, The Avignon Quintet (1974– 85). Akkad, an Egyptian merchant-banker who is also a latter-day Gnostic, preaches to small groups of European expatriates. At times plump and sluggish-looking, at others looking ascetic and haggard, at home in four capitals and speaking as many languages or more, sometimes wearing western clothes and sometimes traditional dress, Akkad offers to piece together the surviving fragments of Gnostic teaching, which the established religions had tried to destroy: the bitter central truth of the gnostics:
… the horrifying realisation that the world of the Good God was a dead one, and that He had been replaced by a usurper – a God of Evil … It was the deep realisation of this truth, and its proclamation that had caused the gnostics to be suppressed, censored, destroyed. Humanity is too frail to face the truth about things – but to anyone who confronts the reality of nature and of process with a clear mind, the answer is completely inescapable: Evil rules the day.
What sort of God, the gnostic asks himself, could have organised things the way they are – this munching world of death and dissolution which pretends to have a Saviour, and a fountain of good at its base? What sort of God could have built this malefic machine of destruction, of self-immolation? Only the very spirit of the dark negative death-trend in nature – the spirit of nothingness and auto-annihilation. A world in which we are each other’s food, each other’s prey …
In classical and medieval astrology, there was a planetary significator that was antithetical to the Hyleg – Giver of Life, Health, and Longevity. It was called the Anareta, and was also known as the Interfector or the Killer Planet. It was considered to be the planet most involved with illness, pathology and death. Our Earth is Anareta, entropic and self-immolating, a predatory machine that feeds on its children in endless cycles of creation and destruction. In the East Kali is the figure of this dark mistress as giver and taker of life, impersonal and indifferent Nature, productive and destructive, cycling the worlds through eons of mutation, transformation, entropy, and death and rebirth. Her cruel gaze and dance of bones is the inherent order of the universe, unknowing of human suffering she is not aware of inflicting pain or joy; rather her actions are utterly indifferent to the tears or laughter of her human supplicants. The Gnostics knew her as the fallen archon Sophia who gave birth to the Demiurge or creative principle of the universe and its destruction.
The Anareta may be a planet that is particularly afflicted or debilitated, preferably a malefic. It may also be the lord or dispositor of the Eighth house, or the Almuten of that lord. It could also be a planet in the Eighth House, which was classically considered to be the House of Death. We who live within its precincts see it as a prison, a place of endless cruelty and delight; a realm of suffering and decay, a round of pain trapped in the flesh of organic growth and banishment.
Seeing the world as an evil piece of work, the Gnostics advanced a new vision of freedom. Humans were no longer part of a scheme of things in which freedom meant obedience to law. To be free, humans must revolt against the laws that govern earthly things. Refusing the constraints that go with being a fleshly creature, they must exit from the material world.1 For some this was not a transport into other realms but rather a transformation of this very real realm into a hellish paradise, a place of death eternal. In latter times it would go by the name of biogenetic enhancement or transhumanism…
Transhumanism: The Science of Immortality
“I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”
In modern times it was the emergence of the sciences out of the traditions of occult, hermetic, magical, and Gnostic mythologies a new gnosis arose – the secular or demythologized knowledge and mastery of Nature. The project of liberating the spirit from the material world has not disappeared. The dream of finding freedom by rebelling against cosmic law has reappeared as the belief that humans can somehow make themselves masters of nature. Struggling to escape from the feudalist world of Christian ritual and political autarchy that the sciences were revealing, humanity began taking refuge in the illusion that the sciences enable them to remake the world in their own image. This secular faith in the sciences would lead to a new vision of literal soteriology, one that involved no gods or God but rather the very godhood and divinization of the human as worthy of immortalization. The ancient dream of the Hermetic homunculi and the Kabbalistic Golem would in the 21st Century become the quest for the Cyborgization of the human species and the transformation and autonomy of machinic life in robotics and AGI.
In the early 20th Century J.D. Bernal would envision a future in which humans through the mastery of the natural sciences would transform the dreams of ancient hermetic, magic, and Gnostic folklore into a reality. Following the Cosmists of Russia for whom Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers were key, Bernal would develop his own theories. As Count Tolstoy said of Fedorov, he “can in no way reconcile himself with the thought that men are dying and that people now very dear to us will vanish without a trace, and he has developed a theory that science, by a giant step forward, will discover a means to extract from the earth the remains—the particles of our forefathers, in order then to restore them again to living form”.2
As a professed communist Bernal would infuse his notions of the sciences with these ancient dreams of immortality and escape from the organic. At one time ranked among Britain’s most influential scientists, a lifelong communist and proud recipient of a Stalin Peace Prize, Bernal was convinced that a scientifically planned society was being created in the Soviet Union. But his ambitions went beyond the rational reconstruction of human institutions. He was convinced that science could effect a shift in evolution in which human beings would cease to be biological organisms. As the historian of science Philip Ball has described it, Bernal’s dream was that human society would be replaced by ‘a Utopia of post-human cyborgs with machine bodies created by surgical techniques’. Even this fantasy did not exhaust Bernal’s ambitions. Further in the future, he envisioned ‘an erasure of individuality and mortality’ in which human beings would cease to be distinct physical entities. (Gray, 14)
Much as many current theoreticians would like to see the erasure of the human, the notion of the Self as nothing and no one, etc. it was already old hat in this early age of collective generic sociality. Already seeking to undermine the whole liberal subjective tradition we can see in these early scientific fantasies many of the conceptual aspects of what we term transhuman or posthuman ideologies and philosophies feeding into the convergence technologies and sciences of our own time.
As Bernal himself would say in a passage in his book The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (pfd), Bernal spells out what he has in mind: ‘Consciousness itself might end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.’
Of course this notion of the Body of Light has a long history in Gnostic thought, and is probably best captured – at least for English audiences – in the works on Ismaili gnosis by Henry Corbin. As Corbin would describe it “we shall learn that the “black light” is of the divine Ipseity as the light of revelation, which makes one see. Precisely what makes one see, can in nowise become a visible object. It is in this sense that the Light of lights, that by which all visible lights are made visible, is both light and darkness, that is, visible because it brings about vision, but in itself invisible.”3 Without going into an abstruse lecture on the whole amalgam of traditions feeding into these Sufi traditions, what Corbin is relating is the basis of this quest for superconsciousness released from the darkness of matter into the energetic folds of dark matter (in our modern physics terms). In most of these traditions there are two forms of darkness which resolve into our everyday consciousness which is split off from the unconscious producing the illusion of reality, etc., and a greater or higher superconsciousness which incorporates and fuses the two into a higher form or ‘body of light’.
Returning to Bernal we discover his book published in 1929, conceptions that even now inform the vision of the Singularity of the futurologist and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil – an explosive increase in knowledge that will enable humans to emancipate themselves from the material world and cease to be biological organisms. The subtitle of Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near is When Humans Transcend Biology, and while the technologies involved are different – uploading brain information into cyberspace rather than using surgery to build a cyborg – the ultimate goal of freeing the human mind from confinement in matter is the same as Bernal’s. The affinities between these ideas and Gnosticism are clear. Here as elsewhere, secular thinking is shaped by forgotten or repressed religion. (Gray, 15) One also remembers it was Hugo Award winner Vernor Vinge who coined the term technological singularity in his science fiction novel Marooned in Realtime.
Whether ancient or modern, Gnosticism turns on two articles of faith. First there is the conviction that humans are sparks of consciousness confined in the material world. The Gnostics did not deny that order existed in the world; but they viewed this order as a manifestation of evil to which they refused to submit. For them the creator was at best a blunderer, negligent or forgetful of the world it had fashioned, and possibly senile, mad or long dead; it was a minor, insubordinate and malevolent demiurge that ruled the world. Trapped in a dark cosmos, human beings were kept in submission by a trance-like ignorance of their true situation. Here we come to the second formative idea: humans can escape this slavery by acquiring a special kind of knowledge. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge, and for Gnostics knowledge is the key to freedom. (Gray, 16)
As Gnostics see them, humans are ill-designed and badly made creatures, gifted or cursed with flickering insight into their actual condition. Once they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, they discover they are strangers in the universe. From that point onwards, they live at war with themselves and the world.
In asserting that the world is evil, the Gnostics parted company with more ancient ways of thinking. Ancient Egyptian and Indian religion saw the world as containing light and dark, good and bad, but these were a pair that alternated in cycles rather than being locked in any sort of cosmic struggle. Animist conceptions in which the world is an interplay of creative and destructive forces frame a similar view of things. In a universe of this kind the problem of evil that has tormented generations of apologists for monotheism does not exist.
The idea of evil as an active force may have originated with Zoroaster. An Iranian prophet who lived some centuries before Christ (the exact dates are disputed), Zoroaster not only viewed the world as the site of a war between light and dark but believed light could win. Some centuries later another Iranian prophet – Mani, the founder of Manichaeism – also affirmed that good could prevail, though he seems to have believed that victory was not assured. It may have been around this time that the sensation of wavering between alternatives crystallized into an idea of free will. (Gray, 17)
Bataille as I’ve written of before would present the notion of active evil as a creative force in the universe, one that is based on conflict relations. In his widely regarded survey of Gnosticism Hans Jonas once described the gnostic cosmology, the “universe, the domain of the Archons, is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man’s life”.4
Georges Bataille would say of these ancient systems: “It is possible to see as a leitmotif of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action).”5 As Jonas would affirm the world is the product, and even the embodiment, of the negative of knowledge. What it reveals is unenlightened and therefore malignant force, proceeding from the spirit of self-assertive power, from the will to rule and coerce. The mindlessness of this will is the spirit of the world, which bears no relation to understanding and love. The laws of the universe are the laws of this rule, and not of divine wisdom. Power thus becomes the chief aspect of the cosmos, and its inner essence is ignorance (agnosia). To this, the positive complement is that the essence of man is knowledge—knowledge of self and of God: this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe. (p. 327-328)
The idea of a demonic presence in the world emerged with dualistic faiths. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, where Satan features as an adversarial figure rather than a personification of evil. It is only in the New Testament that evil appears as a diabolical agency, and throughout its history Christianity has struggled to reconcile this notion of evil with belief in a God that is all good and all powerful.
A convert from the religion of Mani, Augustine tried to resolve the conundrum by suggesting that evil was the absence of goodness – a fall from grace that came about through the misuse of free will. But there always remained a strand in Christianity that saw good and evil as opposed forces. Composed in the early thirteenth century, the most systematic surviving work of Cathar theology, The Book of the Two Principles, asserts that along with the principle of good there is another principle, ‘one of evil, who is mighty in iniquity, from whom the power of Satan and of darkness and all other powers which are inimical to the true Lord God are exclusively and essentially derived’. In support of this view, the Cathar tract goes on to quote Jesus saying (Matthew 7: 18), ‘A good tree cannot being forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.’ (Gray, 18)
During the Enlightenment modern rationalists came to reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it. Seeing themselves as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark. They are left with the same problem of evil that faces religion. The difference is that religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty, while secular believers do not. (Gray, 19)
In our own time this secular rejection of metaphysical evil has led to some strange twists. Aware of the evil in themselves, traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers in the transhumanist dream of creating a higher species have not noticed the fatal flaw in their schemes: any such species will be created by actually existing human beings. So humans have replaced the older metaphysical gods or God of pagan and monotheistic religions, and instead of the quest for spiritual mutation and transformation into a metaphysical ‘body of light’ transcending matter and entering some spiritual universe, these later day prophets of techgnosis have entered into a Faustian bargain to immortalize humanity through a combination of pharmaceutical, technological, and scientific quests in which humanity migrates over time into technological objects or beings. The ancient spiritual vision of hermeticism (Perfect Nature), Gnosticism (Body of Light), Magic (Self-deification), etc. are all oriented toward a literal manifestation of physical immortality and transmutation from organic to anorganic matter.
Whether one is for or against such a move is another matter, but revealing the underlying metaphysics of this vision of the sciences shows us that the ancient traditions have not died at as once thought. In our time the older traditions of hermetic, magic, Gnostic, Alchemy and other systems seem strangely to be merging back into the sciences as if they’d never left off. With the slow erosion of secular culture and its conceptions of the sciences as atheistic and divorced from all metaphysical, mythic, and religious notions coming under fire it remains to be seen what will transpire in the near future as the philosophical and scientific implications of posthuman, transhuman, and other hybrid forms of thought emerge and rechannel these ancient streams that have not wholly disappeared from our civilization.
The modern sciences from Francis Bacon till now tell us that humankind may be a sport of nature, but having chanced into the world the human animal can use its growing knowledge to recreate itself in a higher form. Embodied in a cult of evolution, it is an unwitting version of demiurgy. When humans pursue the dream of creating higher versions of themselves they obey matter’s imperative (i.e., Spinoza’s God = Nature), and their creations will be different from anything they can imagine.
Sometimes I wonder if our unthinking empiricists who are for the elite so willing to use technologies like CRISPR to edit the genome eliminating disease or other inherited forms, or to someday use additive measures for enhancement understand that little smirking law of unintended consequences? As John Gray reminds us: “Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators had in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves.” In this sense our modern secular religion of improvement and progress may itself bring about more than we bargained for, the very destruction of the human species at its own hands. Seeking improvement through biogenetic enhancement, we may in fact actually produce instead the monstrous horrors of a new millennial project that will end in catastrophe. Of course acknowledging this in reasonable discourse is one thing, enforcing it in and through regulatory measures is quite another. I’m just enough a pessimist to realize the elite and rich will most likely subvert any and all regulatory controls, and like other criminal enterprises (i.e., CIA drug trade and heroin protectors of poppy fields in northern Afghanistan etc.) we will be at the mercy of a core group and class that will bypass the laws and sponsor such a danse macabre end game strategy.
- Gray, John. The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom (p. 13). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
- Young, George M.. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (p. 46). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Corbin, Henry. The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Omega Publications; 2nd Revised ed. edition (May 1, 1994)
- Hans Jonas. The Gnostic Religion (Beacom Press, 2001)
- Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess (University of Minnesota, 1985)