The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 19, 2017

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Lee Trepanier - 04/12/12

An extreme religious sensibility from the early Christian era that has influenced twentieth-century thinkers in their understanding of the modern world, Gnosticism has its origins in the second century AD. Gnosticism has been adopted by conservative thinkers to diagnose and to criticize certain characteristics of modernity. Philosophers such as Eric Voegelin, Hans Jonas, and Thomas J. J. Altizer have compared the secularism and revolutionary messianism of modern intellectual and political movements with the fundamental features of ancient Gnosticism.

Ancient Gnosticism blossomed during the second through the fifth centuries AD in the Mediterranean world and became the heretical foil against which Christian dogma defined itself. A series of diverse sects formed around charismatic leaders such as Simon Magus, Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion, and Mani. Although the ancient Gnostics rejected dogma in favor of individual speculation and revelation, they did share some fundamental metaphysical and theological beliefs. The Gnostics believed the created world was evil as a result of a divine catastrophe: a transcendent god either became entrapped in pre-existing matter or gave birth to an evil god, the Demiurge, who proceeded to fashion an evil realm of materiality. The Gnostic believer’s attitude toward his body and the material universe, therefore, is one of hostility and resentment.

Yet salvation from this evil material condition was possible. A divine spark remained in the human soul that sought to return to a transcendent good god. The remembrance of this divine spark required gnosis: a special type of knowledge of the divine mysteries of the world. This knowledge is reserved only for an elite. Since the elite Gnostic possesses absolute knowledge of the mysteries of the world, he does not have to make compromises with the status quo in the pursuit of his dream of ultimate liberation from his body and the material universe. In this sense, ancient Gnosticism is both world-rejecting and subversive in its outlook toward reality.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, ancient Gnosticism was known exclusively through the antiheretical writings of the Church fathers Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. Ironically, ancient Gnostic texts first came to light in 1842 in the form of extensive quotations and explanations included in Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies, which was a concerted attack on Gnosticism. The first discovery of ancient Gnostic texts was the Coptic Pistis Sophia in 1851. Soon other Gnostic texts such as the Hymn of the Pearl, Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and Odes of Solomon were discovered and entered into the cultural mainstream at the beginning of the twentieth century. The initial discovery of the original Gnostic texts occurred when the twin canons of the Western tradition—Christianity’s faith and Enlightenment’s reason—were coming under severe attack and became increasingly regarded as sterile and exhausted.

Confronted with what they believed was a dying tradition, cultural and intellectual elites began to look for alternative roots in their history to make sense of the modern world. The rediscovery of the Gnostic texts provided a narrative source by which to understand modernity and ultimately became the predominant paradigm of the twentieth century. Gnosticism has influenced C. G. Jung’s analytical psychology, Gershom Scholem’s revolutionary messianism, Harold Bloom’s literary criticism, Han Jonas’s and Thomas J. J. Altizer’s existentialism, and Eric Voegelin’s “new science of politics.” All these thinkers identify Gnosticism with a particular mindset of displacement, alienation, and recognition of one’s unique place in the universe.

Jung believed he had discovered in the ancient Gnostics and their conception of redemption through self-knowledge the earliest forerunners of modern psychologists. The Gnostic drama unfolds in the dualistic opposition between the conscious and unconscious poles of the human psyche. According to Jung, the differentiated ego emerges out of the primordial unconscious, just as the Gnostic Demiurge emerges out of the transcendent god. The conscious self forgets its original home, becomes alienated from itself, and believes itself to be autonomous and powerful until the unconscious reveals itself again through gnosis. Jung’s three-stage process of ego formation and individuation culminates with the reintegration of the self, like the ancient Gnostic reincorporation of the human divine spark with a transcendent god.

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