Friday, May 28, 2010

Some brief insights into Gnosticism

Below we have two clips from a short essay by Bertonneau on classical Gnosticism. What makes this particularly interesting is that we find obvious parallels between it and today's Left, as Voegelin would point out in a different way. Bertonneau moves from Voegelin to the main source for some clearer background than one finds in Voegelin, a big help to those who come to Voegelin from Archaeology of Religion. Or, to be a bit clearer myself, we see in these clips that Gnosticism has its own history, which Voegelin is happy to work from. The current lot in political power in Washington, "brilliant" as they are, likely have no ideas about any of this, being too smart to care about the ideas and insights of Dead White Men. For the rest of us, this is pretty interesting.

Thomas F. Bertonneau, "Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part I," Brussels Journal. 27 May 2010.

II. When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience, the special knowledge, that the word Gnosis denotes. Such proprietary knowledge they specifically refuse to share with outsiders because possession of it – or the claim to possess it, for that is all that the outsider has – is what differentiates the illuminati from the vulgate. Thus by virtue (so to speak) of their special knowledge, the Gnostics consider themselves elect. They are an extreme in-group phenomenon. Under this conviction, they “proceed to assert that Providence cares for them alone.” When the Hidden God abolishes the corrupt world, only those whose being has been transfigured by secret knowledge will remain, and they, too, shall be as gods. Compared to those in whom the secret knowledge does not reside, and who are therefore not transfigured, the illuminati are already gods. They may thus mock and revile their ontological inferiors.


IV. Augustine’s plausible representations of the Manichaeans in The Confessions indicate of those sectarians the same hatred of inherited custom and established social hierarchy that Plotinus attributed to his Gnostics, the Valentinians. The devotees of Valentinus regarded the material world as intrinsically and inalterably corrupt. They fervently desired that world’s abolition, after which the pure of heart would be reunited in a kingdom of supernal light known as the Pleroma, or “Fullness.” Augustine would like to see the world improved, but he knows that human behavior is stubborn and that it takes historical ages for a new moral order to take hold. Before he heard differently from God, for example, Abraham would have understood the offering of a child in sacrifice as ordinary religious practice, which it was in the Bronze Age almost everywhere. The Manichaeans, by contrast, exhibit hysteric impatience both with secular recalcitrance and with the crooked timber of humanity. There is one dispensation, theirs, and not holding to it can be charged against an individual even though he had the misfortune to live before the dispensation could be published. The Manichaeans agitated for apocalypse now, the fundamental transformation of a way of life, to coin a phrase.

These excerpts cover a lot of ground in a short space. Well worth the few minutes it will take to look at the full essay linked above.

I'm getting ahead of myself here writing this bit about Czeslaw Milosz's epigram of “An old Jew of Galicia” in his book The Captive Mind, but it seems appropriate in light of the Bertonneau essay here. The beauty of Gnosticism is that the gnostic is not only right, he is perfectly right all the time about everything; and those who don't agree with him fully are totally wrong all the time about all things. Being right in this sense means one has a monopoly on the meaning of life, and one can sneer at those fools who don't share the secret. Everyone else's life is meaningless and wrong and pointless and despicable. What armour. No criticism of oneself can ever penetrate. That is perfection for the man who is terrified of existence and its cosmic loneliness. All of ones terrors can fit into a bag one can fling away, and from then on, one is free to be the fool he is without fear of himself and his knowledge of his foolishness. One can even be proud. Everything is permitted. That's got to be attractive to many. Complete control of life and the universe.
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.


Eowyn said...

"When Gnostics say, “Look to God,” they are invoking the knowledge-without-experience[.]"

There's yer smoking gun.

Without experience, knowledge is bupkis.

Thinks me, anyway.

Dag said...

It's a parasitic pseudo-religion, it is. Normally I wouldn't have cared about that, looking at it throughout my life as a literary/aesthetic period of some interest. But, since things have become so focussed since 9-11 and make us need to know about things political in the larger sense, now we must, seems to me, know about this influence as political religion, i.e. poligion in the sense Voegelin so nicely writes about. Now, aesthetics and archaeology make a different senses, more immediate and thus more important. That is for me and no doubt others, a sad development. However, there is for those of us older types the fact that we had lives uncluttered with this till then. Now, though, iy's time for us to take up the sword and shield and do what we must to preserve the possibility that coming generations might have a period in their lives to enjoy the aesthetic as well.

Not a bad trade-off.

truepeers said...

At first, I didn't think I had much to say about this piece, being largely ignorant on the historical period under discussion. And I wasn't going to quibble about Dag's wording: "Bertonneau moves from Voegelin to the main source..."

I think Dag means the primary sources for Gnosticism; anyway, what gained my attention for only a few minutes was trying to figure out what might one consider the main source of Gnosticism. Does Gnosticism have a pre-eminent articulation? I didn't think so, though I guess the one with the greatest world historical significance is probably Marxism.

But I was then interested to read the latest comment at Bertonneau's BJ post:

Nihilism was basically born with Marxism or at least achieved its most systematic expression and defense in Marxism. The Gnostics and other mystics did not dissemble criminal impulses under the pretext of religion. Theirs was a genuinely religiously motivated violence (and so was ancient Islam’s), and not a criminally motivated violence. In the Marxist war against all those who live, work and produce by the use of their minds (Spengler criticizes Marx on just this score, that Marx’s definition of labor in fact excludes all those who work), it is impossible not to conclude that a criminal, sadistic, psychopathic, terroristic impulse is being dissembled under the pretext of a political system, a political aim, a political intention and a political ideology. The Gnostics and other religious mystics would have had no truck with Marxism, the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia, the Red Army Faction or with the latest Marxist organization, Al Qaeda.”

[...]"Conservatives who describe Marxism as a form of utopianism, Gnosticism, chiliasm, millennialism, secularized Christianity and so forth, run the real danger of becoming spokesmen, apologists, down players and PR men of Marxism. They way they describe Marxism is just the manner in which the Marxists themselves want to be described. The Marxist war against all humanity is about Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and conscious evil and thrill killing, and has nothing whatever to do with politics in the truest, highest, noblest and best sense of that term. The description of Marxist inspired violence as political violence as opposed to criminal, psychopathic violence is immoral and obscene. It is high time indeed (long past time) that conservatives stopped describing leftist violence as being anything other than psychopathic violence.

truepeers said...

Psychopathic or sociopathic or both?

Anyway, i'm not ready to wade into that for it would require us to carefully distinguish what Marxism looks like in retrospect (with its murder toll in the hundreds of millions) from a careful "psychiatry" of the desires and intentions in play at the start of the Marxist "revolutions".

But I will say that a general problem in drawing quick and easy parallels between the late classical sources and our times is that I cannot see history as a process of simply replication vs. differentiation. Every iteration of a theme will entail some amount of differentiation. I think cultural history is an expansive process where nothing much of serious significance is ever really lost for long, but where the gyre tends to spin wider and wider (when the psychopathic revolutionaries aren't chopping heads). I think there is something to the nineteenth-century "recapitulation" theory that saw the individual's mental growth from infancy as moving through stages that recapitulated the cultural evolution of the human species.

So while I have found the concept of Gnosticism as very useful - as an analytical insight that while pointing, first of all, to a specific period when Gnosticism emerged can nonetheless point to a recurring habit of mind that people still go through in growing up, or not - the way the Gnostic mind is re-articulated, at any point in time, can never be quite the same way twice. Gnostic representations in today's Obamaniacal world are historically distinctive in ways it is worth respecting and investigating for a larger understanding of human freedom and cowardice. I don't think we can use the concept of Gnosticism as a key that opens all doors to what is wrong in antinomian thinking. And yet at the same time, I think it is a real and recurring religious tendency in Western man. It may be worth downplaying the "ism" in talking about the Gnostic habit of mind.