Gnosis means ‘knowledge’. But knowledge of what? Before we ask what Gnosis knows, something must be said about the how. This in itself marks off gnostic knowledge from philosophy. Where the latter acquires its knowledge by rational and logical methods, and communicates it in the same way to other men, so that they may either accept or reject it—and again with arguments of the same kind—with Gnosis it is different. Gnostic knowledge is basically one, and is acquired in one act. Thus the gnostic Simon says: ‘It is true that in those sciences which are generally practised anyone who has not learned does not possess knowledge, but in matters of Gnosis a man has learned as soon as he has heard’, and in a pagan gnostic document it is said, when the Revealer shows himself in his true form: ‘And immediately, at one stroke, everything became clear to me.’ In the Christian-gnostic writings this is also shown by the fact that it is often said that one sentence from the Old or New Testament, from Homer, or any other poet, is sufficient, rightly understood, for Gnosis. Again, in the gnostic writings we find no laborious working-out of the gnostic insights, no gradual drawing near to the truth. In general the gnostics take no account of philosophy; and when they do so it is with a clear rejection at least of the priority of philosophy.
The reason for this is that Gnosis seeks to impart religious knowledge, and therefore renounces any rational foundation. Gnosis is not a philosophy.
We might indeed set Gnosis alongside mysticism . There the aim is a vision, religious or coloured by religion, which can be set alongside gnostic knowledge. But the difference is not to be denied. The mystic believes that in his vision he has a foretaste of conditions after death. Gnosis, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in experiencing, to some extent even now, the conditions after death; rather is it a question of obtaining a proper comprehension of one’s self, the world, and God . In Gnosis it is not a matter of an experience, in which cognitive perception is, for the most part, eliminated, but actually of a cognition . Thus it readily speaks of a ‘learning’.
Gnosis thus has something all its own in the manner in which it conceives its aim. The central factor in Gnosis, the ‘call’, reaches man neither in rational thought nor in an experience which eliminates thought. Man has a special manner of reception in his ‘I’. He feels himself ‘addressed’ and answers the call. He feels that he is encountered by something which already lies within him, although admittedly entombed. It is nothing new, but rather the old which only needs to be called to mind . It is like a note sounded at a distance, which strikes an echoing chord in his heart. Here is the reason why the basic acceptance of Gnosis can and should take place in a single act.
If we must thus ascribe to Gnosis something peculiar in the manner of its appropriation, something peculiar must also show itself in its very thinking. This has indeed often been misunderstood as a blend of East and West, Orient and Occident, and the emphasis has been laid now on the one constituent, now on the other. But all these efforts have not led to a satisfactory result. We shall follow another path. Just as the essence of Gnosis can be grasped in a single act, so the totality of Gnosis can be comprehended in a single image. This is the image of ‘gold in mud’.
What does this mean? It gives expression first of all to the distinction between the gold and what surrounds it. This means that what answers the ‘call’, the ‘I’ of man, the ‘self’ or whatever we choose to call it, belongs to another sphere than the world which surrounds that ‘I’.
The mud is that of the world: it is first of all the body, which with its sensual desires drags man down and holds the ‘I’ in thrall. ‘Within you is a noble slave, to whom you owe his freedom.’ Thus we frequently hear in Gnosis the admonition to free oneself from the‘passions’. In Mandeism—a gnostic sect which survives to our own day—we often hear of the ‘stinking body’ and similar expressions, and in Tractate VII of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection which also includes gnostic pieces, it is said: ‘First you must rend the garment which you wear, the fabric of ignorance, the foundation of wickedness, the fetter of corruption, the black wall, the living death, the visible corpse, the grave which you carry with you, the robber that is in you.’ All this applies to the body. It recalls Plato, who at one point calls Eros a tyrant who bites mankind. But Plato would not speak about the human body as here, and the insistence on celibacy, which is the logical conclusion that Gnosis sometimes draws, would have been impossible for the Athenian philosopher. There is the further fact that from this basic theme of hostility to the body Gnosis derived not only asceticism but also its converse, libertinism, in which man shows his contempt for the body and satisfies its desires because fundamentally they are no concern of his. Indeed, it can even come to the point that a gnostic sect propounds the statement that man must have performed all evil deeds in his lifetime (or in a future life of reincarnation), otherwise he cannot be ‘saved’. If we add that there are in Gnosis representatives of a respectable ethic, but that all these groups—ascetics, libertines, and advocates of a high ethical standard—are still ‘gnostics’, then it can be seen that with this hostility to the body we have still not grasped the central core of Gnosis.
The hostility to the body is only part of a more far-reaching hostility to the world. The gnostic has no appreciation for the beauty of this earth, for him ‘the whole world lies in wickedness’, and this because it is dominated not only by the power of sense but, beyond and including it, by the power of Fate. Fate presented itself in that period above all in the world of the stars, especially in the seven planets which the ancients counted (Sun, Moon , Mercury, Venus , Mars, Jupiter , Saturn), but also in the twelve signs of the Zodiac; the ‘seven’ and the ‘twelve’ are therefore marked in a special way as the power of evil which enslaves mankind. According to many gnostics, ‘demons’ also rule in and over this world, and frequently the figure of the devil appears.
These powers of evil are, however, not individual powers in a world good in itself, but are an expression of the view that the whole world, the entire cosmos in the ancient sense, is what the gnostic describes by ‘mud’ when he speaks of the gold in the mud. There is indeed the view that the cosmos can also be used as an indication of the divine world, but even then it is doomed to extinction, with all that is in it.
There are features which especially express the wickedness of the world. To these belongs first of all the transitory character of all that is in it. ‘No longer to come into being’ is one of the aims of the gnostic. Reincarnation is then the special cause of terror. But death also, the necessity of dying without prospect of a better life, is characteristic of the world; time which rushes on, the inconstancy of all that is on earth, is cause for alarm; the gnostic seeks after what is immutable. Even the separation of mankind into man and woman belongs to this world, which the gnostic yearns to transcend.
When reference is made to the gold in the mud, the ‘I’, the ‘self’ of man, is something other than this whole world. This other is God. God or, as Gnosis also expresses it, the Ultimate Ground of Being lies beyond what we can comprehend with our eyes or with our sense-perception generally. Philosophy also, rational thinking, ‘wisdom’ cannot attain to that point. It is the sphere of ‘light’, of what is least readily to be grasped with the senses and the understanding. Indeed, one can really speak only of a ‘primal cause’, a ‘depth’, or as often happens describe God only in negative terms. He is ‘the unknown Father ’, or ‘the unknown God’, and frequently the attempt is made to describe this unknown God with an array of negative expressions such as ‘ineffable’, ‘unspeakable’, or the like, or even with ‘non-existent’: not ‘existing’, that is, in the usual sense of existence. Occasionally even the predicate ‘ineffable’ is denied. God is not even ‘ineffable’, for if he were ‘ineffable’ that would already be to give a definition, and God in reality is exalted above anything of the sort. Another way of expressing what is unspeakable is to use the prefix ‘fore’: God is called ‘Forefather’ or ‘Fore-beginning’: while it is natural to speak of the Father and the Beginning, as sometimes happens, the use of Fore-father and Fore-beginning indicates something that lies before, concerning which all that can be said is simply this, that it lies before all that is visible and conceivable.
So God and the world stand apart and in opposition. That we must also say ‘in opposition’ is connected with the fact that the world has always originated either out of the antagonism of the two principles ‘God’ and ‘World’, or else owes its existence to a ‘Fall’, an illegitimate action on the part of a being created by God. So even if in the beginning only one entity, God, exists, we can yet speak of a dualism of particular severity. Thus Basilides, who does not know any proper ‘Fall’, yet speaks of a ‘supracosmic’ realm.
Now the image of the ‘gold’ implies that the ‘self’ in man to which it alludes belongs to the sphere of God. The image is chosen because it allows the gold to be gold, even in the mud of the world: the divine element in man is not damaged, even if it stays there. The divine element in man cannot be altered in its quality, it is ‘good’. Certainly, according to some gnostics, it may perish if it is not ‘formed’, but if it is formed then it makes its appearance pure, ‘in being, power, greatness, perfection one and the same as the uncreated and unlimited Power’. But generally what is said is that he who possesses the divine element will of necessity enter with it into the otherworldly sphere of the divine. Perhaps the ‘gold’ must yet be purified, the divine element has still to be trained, but the end is certain: the sphere of the divine, the ‘wholly other’. Man consists of the body and the divine ‘self’, the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit ’, if, as also happens, the ‘soul’ is taken to be an entity intermediate between body and spirit, it has no part in the destiny of the divine element and must obtain for itself by its good deeds a lower salvation which is clearly delimited. But at any rate the ‘self’, this core in man, the soul or the spirit, cannot be created through any kind of effort on the part of man; it is there, or it is not present at all. The decisive thing is not something man must do, he has it; or better, he is it. This is the meaning of the expression that the gnostic man or his self is ‘saved by nature’, and correspondingly that men who do not participate in Gnosis are ‘by nature lost’ or perish. One of the Church Fathers says critically: ‘If one [a gnostic] knows God by nature . . . then he calls faith an existence, not a freedom, a nature and substance.’
If the world is thus the evil and the world of the divine the good, the question is: how then did the good ‘self’ of man come into this evil world? To this question a major part of the gnostic endeavours is devoted. The answer takes different forms, according to whether a primal dualism is assumed or the fall of a divine being. In any case the world is now in a state of disorder, even where this disorder is regarded as necessary for the education of the divine element. The divine must find its way back again into the divine world.
Now it would be false were we to assume that the ‘self’ of man can of itself alone attain to the divine world. The gold lies in the, mud, and of itself cannot escape from it. It is ‘stupefied’, it has ‘forgotten’ its homeland, evil has placed it in ‘drunkenness’, ‘taken it captive’, or whatever other images are used to describe this condition of the ‘I’. ‘It seeks to escape from the bitter Chaos , and knows not how it is to win through.’ The help cannot come from this world, for indeed it is antagonistic to the divine; neither can it come from the ‘I’ of man, but only from the ‘wholly other world’, from the ‘Pleroma ’, the ‘fullness’ as it is also called, probably in contrast to the ‘Kenoma’, the ‘emptiness’ of this world. It comes in a ‘call’, which breaks through man’s forgetfulness of himself, makes an end of his stupefaction, and terminates his imprisonment. ‘Stand up, shake off your sleep . . . Remember that you are a king’s son’— so run the decisive words of the ‘letter’ with which the call comes to the knowledge of the sleeping ‘king’s son’ in the Acts of Thomas (§110). The reaction also corresponds: ‘But at its voice I rose up . . . from sleep . . . and read. Wholly as it stood written in my heart were the words of my letter written. I thought on this, that I was a king’s son. . . .’ Thus ‘only’ a recollection is necessary, but the decisive point is that the ‘I’ cannot recollect of itself. It is a question of a recollection which, as already said, can be accomplished in one act, a remembrance which flares up within him as soon as he becomes aware of the ‘call’. It is thus a ‘redeeming’ function of a peculiar kind which the call has. The gold remains gold even in the mud, it requires only to be ‘set free’, and then ‘nobility craves after its nature’, as is further said in the passage just mentioned in the Acts of Thomas. The redeemed man can return to his homeland.
The decisive event is indeed named by the ‘call’, but this does not yet bring the final redemption. Even if the gnostic through the call has found his self, even if he is thereby exalted above the whole world and it can now be said: ‘From the beginning you are immortal and children of eternal life, and you willed to distribute death among you, that you might consume and destroy it . . .’, however much he knows that he belongs to the world of light—the call does not yet bring the final redemption, for the gnostic still remains fettered to his body. The ‘self’, the ‘seed’, as it is here called, works like leaven, in that it ‘unites what appeared to be divided, namely soul and body’; only the actual deliverance from the body in death makes the ‘self’ free for that space which is no space but the sphere of light. Strictly speaking, even death does not bring it about, but only the end of the world, in which matter is destroyed and the gnostic enters into the world of light. An anticipation of this condition in a mystic experience does indeed occasionally occur, but is, however, the exception. Gnosis leads man to knowledge of himself, but does not teach him to experience freedom from the body in a mystic ecstasy; it is knowledge, not experience.
This leads to a final point. The gnostic is not called as an isolated person. It may be that only ‘one of a thousand, and two of ten thousand’ hear the call, but at any rate these unite together into a community. The gnostics do not exist as individuals, but as a community which in each case gathers round one who has received the ‘call’ and hands it on, as in most Christian ‘sects’, which are named after the founder, or in Manicheism. This man has the decisive revelation, as, for example, it is reported of Valentinus that he saw a little child, who, to the question who he was, replied that he was the Logos this fundamental revelation is then developed into a myth, such as is reported of Valentinus in the passage mentioned, and then around this myth, this ‘system’, there gathers a circle of like-minded people. Since the myths are varied, there are also different gnostic ‘schools’, which, however, stand in a strained relationship to one another. For each group affirms that it alone exactly knows the redeeming call or the Redeemer. ‘Those from above . . . , from whence we are, . . . understand Jesus the Saviour not partially but wholly, and are alone perfect from above, the rest know him only in part.’
The gnostics of course feel themselves in this world as ‘people divided’, who are, however, destined to unity in the kingdom of light. They are ‘sparks of light’, which go into the kingdom of light from which they came. This takes place as one act: all together go into the Pleroma. Only then can the world meet its end, when it is either annihilated by fire, or remains here below, a burnt-out heap of ashes, powerless and dead, or even continues in a contentment free from aspiration or desire with all its parts in that particular sphere which is appointed for it. It is on the gnostics that the end of the world depends.
With the end of the world all tensions are removed, the expansive stream of time, the limiting character of individuality, the tension of the sexes. But that the entire Pleroma is once again taken up into the unity of the ‘primal cause’ is not gnostic doctrine. Valentinianism indeed makes all ‘aeons’ become alike, and says of them that they all become what the others also are, but further it does not go. The gnostics at the end of the world do indeed come to entrance into the Pleroma and to marriage with the masculine angels, and thus the unification of male and female is attained, but that is all; only expressions such as in the ‘redemption’ of the Marcosians, who are baptized to ‘unity’, apparently go further. Admittedly formulae also occur which are suggestive of declarations of identity, as, for example, in the Megale Apophasis , where the developed ‘seventh power’ becomes ‘one and the same with the uncreated and infinite power in being, power, greatness, and operation’. But even here there is no thrust forward to an outright declaration of identity; at the very least the ‘primal cause’, the supreme power, remains by itself.
The main points of Gnosis are thus the following:
1. Between this world and the God incomprehensible to our thought, the ‘primal cause’, there is an irreconcilable antagonism.
2. The ‘self’, the ‘I’ of the gnostic, his ‘spirit’ or soul, is unalterably divine.
3. This ‘I’, however, has fallen into this world, has been imprisoned and anaesthetized by it, and cannot free itself from it.
4. Only a divine ‘call’ from the world of light looses the bonds of captivity.
5. But only at the end of the world does the divine element in man return again to its home.