“Gnosticism & Modern Nihilism” – Ioan P. CULIANU

Wo keine Göter sind, walten Gespenster.

1. The Birth of Nihilism

The intention here is not to summarize the debate surrounding nihilism, a concept that appeared in 1799 and continues to be a very live option. I It will suffice to sketch in a few lines the essence of this “uncanny guest” (Nietzsche) who came knocking at the door of our civilization at the outbreak of the modem era. We must address the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) in order to seek a ruling on the “death of God.”

Nietzsche, as harbinger of the new era, feels and proclaims that the transcendence of the Christian-Platonic faith that dominated Western civilization for over two thousand years has become void, has spent its vital force and creativity. Obviously this means the liberation of humankind from transcendence, yet what remains without transcendence is nothingness (das Nichts, or the Cathars’ nihil) and liberation, becomes “liberation unto nothingness” (Befreiung in das Nichts).2 Under these circumstances, there are two alternatives: either to find a substitute or Ersatz for transcendence–and this substitute is the Enlightenment’s belief in Reason (Vernunftglauben), which is not a “hard value” for being deprived of any metaphysical justification-or to accept nihilism as an active force and to become its instruments. This is defined by Nietzsche, with an untranslatable pun, as an “unbuilding”: “man legt Hand an, man richtet zugrunde.”3 The verb richten means “to build,” zugrunde means “down to the ground,” and their combination, ” to demolish, unbuild, build down.”

If nihilism is the state that ensues from the “unbuilding” of transcendence and the attitude that pursues transcendence in order to ”build it down,” then we are entitled to notice that Gnosticism is the obverse of nihilism, for being the champion of transcendence. It has become apparent that one of the most relevant characteristics of Gnosticism and of all other trends of Western dualism is the extreme and extremistic affirmation of transcendence at the expense of the physical world. If we persist in calling these trends nihilistic, then we must define their nihilism as the most powerful metaphysical nihilism in the history of Western ideas. Modern nihilism, by contrast, is antimetaphysical.

Here, nevertheless, a circumstance intervenes that makes the two­–Gnosticism and modern nihilism–closely resemble each other: the fact that, for purposes that are the inverse of each other, the two actively “build down” the same transcendence, namely, the Jewish-Platonic one as embodied in nearly two millennia of Christianity. For Western dualism this is the false transcendence that has to be unmasked and demolished in order to proclaim the true transcendence; for modern nihilism this transcendence is equally false, because it is a mental construct that shielded us from the hard fact of nihilism for well over two millennia; it likewise has to be unmasked and ”built down.” This accounts for many traits that the two inverse forms of nihilism-the metaphysical one and the antimetaphysical one-share, the most conspicuous being their constant attack on the Christian Scriptures, the embodiment, for both of them, of a fallacious transcendence.

Consequently at the outbreak of modern era, the system of inverse biblical exegesis was once again activated and continues to produce solutions according to the same rules of the game (see chapter 10), almost as if there were no interruption between the ancient gnostics and Romanticism. This explains the impressive analogies between dualistic mythologies and Romantic mythical narratives. From a systemic viewpoint, we may add. that the game of modern nihilism starts from a rule that is the extreme opposite of the rule that produces dualistic scenarios, but it reaches conclusions that are formally identical in so far as it recognizes the need to annihilate the current (Christian) concept of “value.” Thus the two systems differ by their first and foremost option–affirm versus deny transcendence; yet the first alternative is more complex, in so far as the affirmation of transcendence goes together with a denial of the common concept of transcendence, the Christian Jewish-Platonic) one.

If the system of modern nihilism starts with a powerful substitute for transcendence, which is belief in Reason, it discovers sooner or later that there is no value if there is no metasystem in which value is defined. This is the experience of the existentialist philosophers and is again the mirror equivalent of the dualistic experience, in so far as both recognize the necessity of transcendence; but dualism affirms it and existentialism complains about its complete absence. A writer like Albert Camus would make constant use of gnostic dualistic metaphors in the titles of his major works: Exile and Kingdom, The Stranger, The Fall.

In what follows we will analyze, with no pretense of exhaustiveness, some of the more salient episodes of inverse biblical exegesis in Romantic nihilism and subsequently will pass to the modem debate on Gnosis.

2. The Post-Miltonians

With Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton (1608-1674) inaugurated a tradition of mythological narratives using the Bible that would be continued by William Blake (1757-1827) and, in the early XIXth century, by the British Romantics. A nonconformist in social life and in his religious outlook, which became public only 150 years after his death, Milton nevertheless respected the strict limits of orthodoxy in his great poem. Despite his dramatic grandness, his hero Satan remains the jealous opponent of an almighty God. As far as Adam and Eve are concerned, they sin, in the good Augustinian tradition, out of a free will that is, however, not defined in sexual terms, sexual fulfillment being, even among angels, a desirable event.

It will be impossible to analyze here the mythical narratives produced by William Blake under the influence of Thomas Taylor’s Platonism, Swedenborg’s visionary experience, and George Berkeley’s philosophy. Blake’s [First] Book of Urizen (1794) is a free Genesis paraphrase combined with reminiscences from Greek mythology, in which the awesome primordial being Urizen plays the part of the biblical creator god. Urizen, the architect of this universe, is the hypostasis of the hatred and contempt that Blake himself felt for the soulless, mechanistic philosophy of Newton and for Locke’s sensualism, and at the same time he is the legalistic tyrant of the Bible. Creation is defined as both a contraction and a fall in six stages, the six days of Genesis. Blake’s narrative contains inverse exegesis tightly interwoven with original elements in a dense plot on which we cannot expand here.4

The birthpangs of nihilism are heard in gnostic tones in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1818-19), which likewise belongs to the post-Miltonian tradition. In his Preface, Shelley confesses that he did not choose Satan as a main character instead of Prometheus since the latter “is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the Hero of Paradise Lost interfere with the interest.”5 Nihilistic exegesis was still in its infancy, and Milton’s shadow too authoritative to be overcome. Instead of reViving Satan-an operation performed by Lord Byron a few years later-Shelley prefers to stay within Greek, not biblical, mythology, and many opportunities for a reversed exegesis of Genesis are thereby lost. Nevertheless, the regime of the world in Shelley’s drama is clearly bad, and this not only because of Jupiter, who threw Prometheus in chains and let him be tortured. Jupiter himself is only a sky god; he can play with meteorological phenomena and nothing more. Mightier than Jupiter are those divinities who govern human life: “Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change. To these I All things are subject but eternal Love.”6

Jupiter is not really evil; he is an impotent and abusive tyrant who occupied the throne of the Ruler of the World and will be supplanted by the better Ruler Love. Like the gnostic Demiurge, Jupiter is unaware of the existence of a mightier Pleroma above him. With the unchaining of Prometheus, the tyrant will be cast into the abyss, and the nature of the world’s Rule will change dramatically, for

the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself.7

This overly optimistic vision of a world ruled by Love is finally blessed, by the Creator of all,

king of suns and stars, Demons and Gods,
Ethereal Dominations, who possess
Elysian, windless, fortunate abodes
Beyond Heaven’s constellated wilderness. 8

The “blest” and “great Republic” of the aeons, a sort of Pleroma around an alien God, manifest themselves through an anonymous Voice to show their approval of the dismissal of the despotic Jupiter.

The analogies between Shelley’s myth and gnostic myth are obvious. In both cases an ignorant and impotent celestial tyrant rules over the earth; in both cases a Savior must come to redeem humankind and must suffer to effect redemption; in both cases there is an unknown, transcendent Pleroma; and in bbth cases a new world regime follows the unmasking of the false transcendence. Yet Shelley’s worldview is very different from the gnostics’: All humans will be redeemed on a transfigured Earth, freed from the chains of Power. In so far as this would entail redemption of physicality and Matter, the only ancient equivalent of it is Origenist eschatology. Among all the Romantics who reinvent gnostic myth, Shelley is the only one who needs a higher transcendence to bless the dethronement of Jupiter-Yahweh. Yet his positive vision of the Earth shows that he, like all modem nihilists, disinvests from transcendence and invests in mundane reality. The investment yielded a return in all but philosophical terms, as prophets of doom would now and then remind us still.

With Cain: A Mystery ( 1 821), Byron goes one step further: He restores Satan-Lucifer to his rights yet gives him powers far beyond those granted him by the Christian Milton. It is true that the narrative is from the perspective of Cain, who may be deceived by Lucifer; Byron’s genius knew how to keep the finale perfectly ambiguous.

Cain may be considered the best systemic introduction to the study of Gnosticism and other Western dualistic trends, for it is an extraordinary illustration of how the Genesis board game can be played at any time and will deliver outcomes that are transformations of each other. Byron, indeed, played the game starting from the (nihilistic, not gnostic) rule that the transcendence of Genesis is false and therefore its traditional exegesis ought to be reversed. He thus produced a narrative that perfectly resembles gnostic myth.

Byron’s story starts with the revelation that a god who permitted man to be mortal and the world to be a place of suffering and injustice cannot be good. Lucifer acts as a Savior and discloses to Cain the most potent secret of creation: that there is a second Power, which is good. That second power is Lucifer himself, who further reveals to Cain another
shocking secret: that he is not mortal, as god wants him to believe, but immortal. Like John in the narrative framework of the Apocryphon of John, Cain asks his Savior a number of questions, which sometimes happen to be exactly the same as those asked by John, such as, Who was the Snake in the Garden of Eden? Cain, like many gnostics, believes that the Snake was a spirit, but Lucifer energetically denies that he himself took on the Snake’s shape: “The snake was the Snake–no more and yet no less.” This is the interpretation of the gnostic Testimony of Truth, as against the interpretation of the Apocryphon of John, according to which the Snake was a representative of Evil, or against the opposite interpretation that makes the Snake into a representative of the good Pleroma. It is as if, at this stage on the game board, the player may draw cards that allow a definition of the Snake in terms of “Good,” “Neutral,” or “Evil” and would further indicate who the Snake character really is (he may be Lucifer, Sophia, the Devil, the Demiurge, or some other, and all this makes for a transformation of the sequential mind game played along the Book of Genesis).

Lucifer’s revelation to Cain contains more than a promise of immortality, should Cain recognize the eternal character of his mind, “if the mind will be itself I And centre of surrounding things.”

Lucifer takes Cain on an ecstatic tour of the universe, showing him that it consists of many parallel worlds, all aborted creations of the same god. The multiplication of systems of power belonging to an unhappy creator changes suffering into a cosmic dimension of being.

“Mind” in Byron’s poem stands for the Enlightenment’s Reason. Consequently his message is that the only salvation of humankind is to abandon despotic transcendence and become centered in Reason. Although Byron’s mythical inventions look superficially like gnostic myth, his basic mood is modem nihilism.

The great poet of Recanati, Giacomo Leopardi (179-1837), who in 1833 desperately asks the Maker of the World, Ahriman (Arimane), “Spender of all Evil,” to cut his life short before his thirty-fifth birthday, prefigures existentialist philosophy in so far as he is disenchanted with the abyss of nihilism watching from behind the weak mask of Reason. To him Reason is good only for ascertaining the evil essence of the immanent god, not for overcoming his power. God can be defeated only by the power of death. Direct gnostic influence has been suggested, but Leopardi’s nihilistic mood is definitely the opposite of the gnostics’.9

In 1953 Rene Nelli noticed that the great epics of French Romanticism were permeated by a Manichaean spirit.10 This would apply to Lamartine’s (1790-1869) The Fall of an Angel (La Chute d’un ange, 1837-38),11 as well as to Victor Hugo’s La Fin de Satan. It is hardly true for Lamartine’s poem, in which an angel, infatuated with the beautiful young woman Daïdha, is ejected from his spiritual dimension into a physical body, undergoes innumerable humiliations and mistreatments in different human societies, all based on injustice and absurd laws, and eventually realizes that the world is evil and decides to commit suicide with all the members of his family. This suburban Paris tragedy, superficially tinted with nihilism, moves among many literary worlds that abound in eros, use sci-fi devices, and indulge in sadistic performances. Lamartine’s poem is not an heir to Manichaeism but a pessimistic precursor of the early XXth-century entertainment novel.

Things are different as far as Hugo’s The End of Satan is concerned (1854-57, posthumously published in 1886),12 which is an original narrative belonging to the post-Miltonian tradition. In 1854 Hugo lived in exile at Jersey, practiced spiritism, and received the nocturnal visits of a faithful ghost, the “Dame blanche” th.at might have inspired the name of the homonymous ice cream. At the autumnal equinox Death herself
spoke through the spirit table, spurring him to write a work full of horror and mystery; on October 22 Death gave him a title: Conseils à Dieu. At the beginning of 1855 Jesus Christ manifested himself several times, predictably criticizing Christianity and revealing that there is no God at all. Jesus Christ was, however, repeating himself. He had said the same thing sixty years before, in a poem by the Romantic Jean Paul. On March 8 Jesus Christ entertained Hugo on the subject of the pardon, and Hugo noted: “I am writing a poem called Satan pardoned,” adding that he had started it in March of 1854. He continued Dieu and La Fin de Satan at Guernsey, where his nights were inhabited by strange presences. The two poems bear the imprint of this tormented period of his life.

La Fin de Satan lacks the complexity of gnostic myth, yet it succeeds in devising an original plot in which God is trapped by Satan in his own creation, which God therefore repeatedly tries to destroy, without success. God is clearly not almighty, yet his Oppo.nent cannot unseat him for one unexpected reason: As a former Angel, Satan is desperately in love with God and detests the fetid darkness in which he is compelled to abide, which is tantamount to saying that he hates himself as much as he cherishes his enemy. Eventually the two must come to terms, lest God’s creation be h:remediably spoiled and Satan altogether disgusted with himself and his foul surroundings. Strangely enough, the stakes of the final reconciliation of the two mighty opponents are the destruction of the world, envisioned as a positive outcome.

3. Gnosticism as an Analogue Model

Philosophy, said one of the greatest German philosophers, is a German provincial affair. The modem debate on Gnosis has not yet left this province, where, beside concepts like “secularization” and “nihilism,” it continues to fascinate philosophical minds. Actually the stakes here are not modest either. At issue is the meaning of history itself.

It is only by convention that Ferdinand Christian Baur’s work Die christliche Gnosis oder die christliche Religionsphilosophie (Tübingen, 1835) is said to be the starting signal for the Gnosis debate. One could actually go back further to Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), whose Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzerhistorie (1699) had, as it seems, a decisive impact on Goethe.

It is Baur anyway who kicks off the fashion of comparing modem thought with andent Gnosis. For him, Hegel is the heir to V alentinus. In Valentinianism the absolute Spirit is the top of the pyramidal Pleroma, and the aeons are the essences through which the Spirit knows itself by creating a negative reflection of itself. The link between aeons is love. All of this returns in Hegel, as well as Sophia’s fall, which takes on the form of a break in the “Kingdom of the Son of the World,” when the “finite spirit” (endlicher Geist) appears, which is the e quivalent of the Valentinian low-quality psyche (soul). The “Kingdom of the Son of the World” will be concluded by the dialectic “negation of negation,” a “process of reconciliation” (der Prozess der Versohnung) in which the absolute Spirit recognizes itself for what it is.13

Baur remains unaware of gnostic anticosmism (and perhaps dualism), which was only spotted by Hans Jonas in 1934. Therefore his interpretation of Gnosis fits not only Hegel but Christianity and Platonism as well. In modem scholarship and hermeneutics the variations on the meaning of Gnosis itself are considerable, and our intention here is not to establish even a tentative catalog thereof. We already came across Eugen Heinrich Schmitt in our survey of feminist interpretations of Gnosis (chapter 3 above). Yet Schmitt also inaugurates the proliferation of unchecked meanings of the word Gnosis. In the Protestant (evangelical) tradition, rather than in that of Clement of Alexandria, who also made a distinction between gnosis and mere pistis, “faith,” he opposes “Gnosis” intended as inner experience to sheer “faith,” which is the vulgar experience of those associated with the Church.14 According to this definition, the greatest gnostic of modem times would be . . . Count Leo Tolstoy!15

It was undoubtedly the merit of Hans Jonas’s first volume of Gnosis and the Spirit of Late Antiquity (1934) to introduce some coherence into the debate. According to Jonas, constitutive of the gnostic systems are anticosmism and the idea of devolution, that is, of a catastrophic break that interrupts the evolution of the aeons. For Jonas, Hegel is the representative of a worldview quite opposite to that of Gnosis, evolutionary and procosmic.

Philosophically more ambitious, Jacob Taubes’s Western Eschatology (1947) tackles the thorny question of the destiny of Western civilization, which had also preoccupied Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Indeed, when writing the book, Taubes himself was a Heideggerian. For Heidegger (Being and Time, 1927), a great lover of linguistic puns, the meaning of being shines in its being being-toward-death (Sein zum Tod). Taubes transfers this judgment onto the process of history and declares that the meaning of history is revealed only in the cessation of history, in the eschaton. “In the eschaton history exceeds its own limits and becomes visible to itself.”16 “Historial” (as opposed to “historical”–one of Heidegger’s favorite puns, opposing the word geschichtlich, from Geschichte, which would be related to Geschick, that is, “fate,” predestination, to mere historisch, “historical,” intended as accidental) authenticity belongs therefore, according to Taubes, to those historical forces that speed up the end of world history through a process of “permanent revolution.” Taubes thus identifies the leading edge of history with the gnostic-apocalyptic tradition, which he makes into the vocation of Israel, corresponding to Israel’s unique characteristic of “spaceless people” and therefore “people of time,” the people of a coming New Heaven and New Earth.17 This is why Israel as historical “place” is the “place of Revolution.”18

Taubes makes no distinction between apocalypticism and Gnosticism. For him, to put it in his own words, Gnosticism is the “historial” ideology of apocalyptic Revolution, which manifests itself in Jesus’ preaching of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, this world is abolished, yet it is slow to disappear. Paul is the first to give this paradox “gnostic” expression by moving Christian salvation from the horizontal dimension of time to the vertical dimension of being, by transforming the end of the world into an individual escape from the prison of the world.19

Starting with Origen, the Church Fathers choose against “historial” authenticity and systematically condemn the millennial, apocalyptic ferments present at all times in Christianity.20 The eschatological spirit of Christianity is extinguished in the Augustinian conception of the Church, which is a reversal of millennialism: The Church is already the Kingdom of Christ on earth.21 After Augustine, millennialism becomes altogether sectarian but gains a new momentum in the preaching of Joachim of Flora,22 whose interpretation of history will become political philosophy in the radical Protestant Thomas Münzer, who wants to install the Spiritual Church on earth and justifies totalitarianism based on power if power is exerted by the “good. “23 Enlightenment restores inauthenticity by reestablishing the Church, a “Church of Reason. ” During Hegel’s time, the critical power of Christianity, its raison d’etre, was altogether consumed. This is Taubes’s interpretation of Hegel’s 1802 statement (Glauben und Wissen) according to which God would be dead. Hegel himself is a Joachimite–he belongs to the millennial tradition and envisions his own philosophy as the last possible one.

Taubes emphasizes the role of the Reformation as a revealer of historial authentic forces. For him, Münzer is a revolutionary theocrat like the Old Testament Prophets. Through violence and subversion, he aims at installing God’s Law on earth. Luther, by contrast is a moderate Marcionite, relieved to give over to the lay state that cursed side of existence which falls under the Law and to dedicate all his power to the construction of Christian interiority. Between the two, Münzer would be more perceptive, for he predicted that, saturated by the honey of prayer and grace, the soul (interiority, subjectivity) will be so submerged in sweetness that it will cease to exist: “Wer den bitteren Christum nicht will haben, wird sich am Honig totfressen” (Who shuns the bitterness of Christ will eat honey unto death). Indeed, Lutheran subjectivity would prove precarious, and any attempt to meet God in one’s interiority would soon meet only His frightening silence.

With Hegel, the place of historial authenticity moves definitively from religion to philosophy, which takes over the revolutionary task of religion.24 The representatives of “permanent revolution” are Kierkegaard and Marx: “Marx destroys the capitalist-bourgeois world, Kierkegaard the Christian-bourgeois world.”25 Whereas Marx publi$hes his Communist Manifesto, the Apocalypse of capitalist society on whose ruins a classless society would appear, Kierkegaard publishes an anti-communist manifesto (Das Eine was nottut). For Marx, 1848 was the historial year when the Fourth Estate made its entrance into history; for Kierkegaard, 1848 was the tangible sign of godlessness, the coming of the socialist Antichrist.26 Which of the two was right? For Taubes only a coincidentia oppositorum of Marx and Kierkegaard could eliminate the contradiction between the external and the internal orders. But such a state could be reached only in the eschaton, which means that the place of historial authenticity is and remains the gnostic “permanent revolution.”27

Taubes’s poignant book launched an ongoing debate. It was Eric Voegelin who, although subscribing to Taubes’s analysis, questioned both its premises and its results.28

Voegelin ascertains that Christianity, a messianic Jewish movement, possesses an inner tension that ensues from the delay of the expected world end. Since the eschaton (Parousia) never took place, the Church decided to change historical eschatology into supernatural eschatology. Yet the expectation of the world’s end would never disappear from the life of Christian communities. A ferment of anarchy and revolution accompanies Christianity along its whole history. Joachim of Flora, as both Taubes and Lowith had it,29 remains for Voegelin the most important character in the renewal of eschatological expectations. Voegelin articulates Joachim’s doctrine in four main points:30 the three phases of world history, resumed by Hegel, Marx, and by the ideologist of the Third Reich (an invention of a pathological subject: the writer Moeller van den Bruck, author of a work on Dostoyevski called Das dritte Reich, 1923); the great historical Leader, Dux, resumed by Marx and Hitler (and, in a pathetic key, one might add, by the Italian Duce); the Prophet of a New Age, who is often conflated with the Leader (Marx, Hitler); and, finally, the eschatological age as a community of autonomous persons in direct contact with the Holy Spirit, without the mediation of sacraments and grace (communism).

Voegelin calls Gnosis the great millennial-apocalyptic trend that accompanies Christianity from its inception. For both Taubes and Voegelin, Gnosis is indeed that unique ferment of history which molds the present face of the West. Like nihilism in Heidegger (Holzwege: Nietzsches Satz “Gott ist tot”), the “Gnosticism” of modernity constitutes for both Taubes and Voegelin a fatal, historial force that determines the destiny of all peoples of the world, dragged along by the movement of the West. Yet, whereas Taubes qualifies this force positively and opts for “permanent revolution” in order to reach as soon as possible the cessation of history, which would also establish the ultimate meaning of history, Voegelin emphasizes the radical negativity of that “Gnosticism” which becomes more and more important and disquieting in the modern age.31

The “gnostic revolution” takes place in stages. One among these is the Reformation, which is the successful takeover of Western institutions by gnostic movements.32 The most patent example of takeover is the British Puritans, who close every opponent’s mouth citing John’s words: “We are of God, and whoever knows God listens to us. “33 According to Voegelin, the Puritans represent an anti-Christian force camouflaged as Christian. But the genius of scriptural camouflage is John Calvin, whose work constitutes a Christian Qur’an-by which Voegelin means The Book that answers all questions, making all precedent or subsequent knowledge useless. Calvin accomplishes a complete break within the Western intellectual tradition. Other breaks, other Qur’ans: the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’ Alembert, the work of Auguste Comte, the work of Marx, and “the patristic literature of Leninism-Stalinism.”34 The qur’anic character of these works entails, according to Voegelin, active exclusion of all they claim to supplant. The Reformation already replaces argument and persuasion by the immutable and undiscussed truth of a totalitarian society.35 Totalitarianism is, in fact, the accomplishment of the gnostic quest for a civil theology. Today Gnosticism, the nearing of the Christian eschaton, manifests itself in two distinct forms: Marxism, which is the more explicit and less subtle, and “Westernization,” which implies the destruction of the “truth of the soul” and contempt for existential problems.36

Voegelin’s thesis has been taken quite seriously by Philip J. Lee in a recent work, at least to the extent that it applies to Calvinism.37 The founding fathers of America are made into awesome gnostics. Lee recommends “the Degnosticizing of Protestantism” along disciplinarian lines. Fortunately he goes against the main trend of American liberal Protestantism.

Whether Gnosticism is viewed as that positive movement whose role is to free the world from itself (Taubes) or as a negative world power (Weltmacht) that is destroying the world (Voegelin), all parties agree that Karl Marx ought to be assigned a place of honor in it. To demonstrate Marx’s gnostic derivation, the Austrian historian of philosophy Ernst Topitsch abandoned historical typology and tried to establish concrete historical links.38 Through Hegel, Marx would draw upon the gnostic traditions contained in the “German Ideology,” sort of a German “family inheritance” that goes along with Lutheran theology and permeates the entire history of modem German philosophy,39 from Hegel to Heidegger. An important link in the transmission of the German Ideology was the Pietist Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1 702-1 782), an adept of Lurian Kabbalah, an admirer of Jakob Bohme, and a disciple of Johann Albrecht Bengel (d. 1752), a strange character who took inspiration from Joachim of Flora’s theories in order to make numerological predictions from the Revelation of John and ascertained that the world would end in 1836. He never lived to be disappointed, nor did his follower Oetinger, who, spurred by the imminent end Gust beyond his grasp), conceived of the project of a millennial Kingdom in which all people would be equal and in which private property, the state, and money would be abolished. It is difficult to establish to what extent Oetinger influenced Hegel, whose “Gnosticism” would primarily be contained in the theory of “alienation” (Entfremdung, Entiiusserung): The Absolute has to alienate itself in order to become known to itself. Hegelian philosophy of history is nothing but gnostic theodicy in disguise.40 Hegel himself prepares the terrain for Marx’s theory of “alienation” of the worker’s labor .

Topitsch follows the gnostic myth of the fall, alienation, and blindness of the humans deceived by the Demiurge down into the Hegelian myth of alienation of the Spirit and then into the Marxist myth of the alienation of humankind through religion and of its salvation through the exercise of “positive science.”41 Topitsch likewise ascertains that, in Marx’s theory, the place of the gnostic elect is taken by the proletarians, who possess the secret lore of class struggle, as well as a true class awareness as against the false, alienated, or ideologizing conscience of everyone else.42

Among so many prophets of doom who conceive of Gnosticism as a perennial historical movement that shuffles like a grim parade through all of Western history, there is one discordant voice: the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg.43 For Blumenberg, whose books are available in English translation, modernity is the stage not of the final victory of Gnosticism but, on the contrary, of its final eviction. The reverse would have taken place in that age of “theology of science” {as Amos Funkenstein brilliantly puts it),44 the XVIIth century, when thinkers like Descartes and Leibnitz would discuss–and reject–the idea that the Creator of this world would be a “powerful deceiver” (deceptor potentissimus). Many have criticized the precariousness of Blumenberg’s position, and Amos Funkenstein, among others, has shown that Descartes’s philosophy would not have been thinkable without the influence of late medieval Nominalism, precisely that Nominalism which, according to Blumenberg, is the last Western “relapse” into Gnosticism. Yet Blumenberg entirely forgets that the tenets of the Reformation are the total confirmation of the Augustinian doctrine of original sexual sin and predestination, which otherwise Blumenberg holds for “gnostic.” It would therefore be quite easy to overthrow all of Blumenberg’s assumptions.

The question we must face in this book is not whether all these essayists are right in overextending the concepts of Gnosticism and Gnosis but whether it is legitimate to interpret the occurrences mentioned (or invented) by them as outcomes of the gnostic system. Or, to put it in other words, one should first ascertain whether Taubes’s or Voegelin’s “Gnosticisms” belong to the Tree of Gnosis of the preceding chapter of this book, whether they are transformations generated by the same principles that generate Western dualistic trends. For this, such powerful phenomena as the ideologies of the Reformation or German classical idealism from Kant onward should be carefully analyzed, an enterprise that can obviously find no place in this book. Gnosticism as a correct analogue model for Hegelian or Marxist evolutionism may be objectionable, but what actually matters is the hermeneutical trend that has emerged, represented by Taubes, Voegelin, Topitsch, Pellicani, and others, according to which modernity is gnostic. ‘their creative misunderstading of Gnosticism is possible, although it may have no legitimacy in the eyes of someone who looks for more than superficial analogies among phenomena. For such a one, the only modern philosopher who may be called gnostic to some extent is one who does not figure on the lists of any of the leading personalities of “modem Gnosticism” mentioned so far: Immanuel Kant, who in his booklet Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793) displays gnostic anthropology as his own. Man is evil by nature but contains at the very bottom of his soul (Seelengrund) a divine spark of goodness. This spark would allow him to become a “New Man,” through a “moral revolution.”

The case of existentialism has already been discussed elsewhere.45 Like Romanticism, existentialism closely resembles Gnosticism, yet it is the obverse thereof: Whereas Gnosticism is the champion of transcendence, existentialism is the final acknowledgment of its absence. We will not dwell here on the resemblance between gnostic myth and the myth of Nee-Darwinian biology as emphasized by Hans Jonas.46 An assessment of the basic operational identity between religious and scientific myth will detain us elsewhere.47 A last word should be spent here on the legitimacy of another enterprise that quite unfortunately has become current among literary historians, who would indiscriminately label as “gnostic” many if not all of the writers in the world, including
François Villon, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Flannery O’Connor.48

A more serious case has been made for science fiction inspired by Gnosticism, and the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Divine Invasion has been mentioned in this connection.49 A closer look at the novel shows that, indeed, Dick took inspiration from Jewish and Jewish-Christian apocalyptic literature (especially The Vision of Isaiah),50 yet his novel, which describes the descent of God to the earth through the first heaven controlled by the troops of Beliar the Opponent, and God’s encounter with his Wisdom in a kindergarten,51 makes no use of gnostic material. More convincing is the analogy in the case of L. Ron. Hubbard, himself a sc-fi writer who first published his best-selling Dianetics as a fiction novel in Astounding SF.52 The central myth of Hubbard’s Scientology by the method of Dianetic auditing starts from the assumption that the immortal Thetans of the beginning are bored and therefore willing to play games in which they build universes. Eventually they are lured into the universes they created, remain trapped in them, and forget who they are.53

Yet, as Richard Smith perceptively noticed,54 Harold Bloom is today the only author of both essays and fiction who consciously identifies himself with the gnostics, both as a literary critic and a writer. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973) Bloom asserts that every act of creation is ipso facto an act of destruction toward tradition and believes that the gnostic Valentinus has set the example for such an operation, in so far as he “is troping upon and indeed against his precursor authorities, to reverse his relationship to the Bible and to Plato, by joining himself to an asserted earlier truth that they supposedly have distorted.’!55 And in Agon (1982) Bloom praises Gnosticism as “the inaugural and most powerful of Deconstructions because it undid all genealogies, scrambled all hierarchies, allegorized every microcosm/macrocosm relation, and rejected every representation of divinity as non-referential.”56 With the expert eye of the literary theorist, Bloom has indeed discovered that Gnosticism signals a reversed exegesis of the Scriptures that runs right up against tradition.

The question remains whether :Bloom can be qualified as a “gnostic” fiction writer, in which case he would be the only unproblematic one. His narrative in The Flight to Lucifer,57 which would look magnificent on a Hollywood Technicolor screen, was ostensibly not produced by a gnostic, although it deals with the gnostic planet, Lucifer. “The gnostic planet” is taken here quite literally to be a planet in the universe, where all gnostics are contiguous ethnic groups: The Mandaeans with their leader Enosh live east of the River; on its western shore are the Sethians; west of them are the Manichaeans, followed by the Marcionites with their chief Cerdo, followed by the Kenoma of the Waters of Night, across which are the Arimaneans. North of the Manichaeans are the Scythians and the Hyperboreans, allowed, as shamans, to be part of the dualists’ planet. Over the underground civilization of Siniavis reigns Saklas, the Demiurge with his seven Archons. Olam, the aeon of the Northern Pleroma who had entered the apple eaten by Adam, takes the memoryless Seth Valentinus and the strong Primordial Man Thomas Prescors to the planet Lucifer through an intricate labyrinth of black holes. Prescors is tempted there by Ruha, Saklas’s sister, by her seductive mother, Achamoth, and by the Arimanean demoness Nekbael, who terminates her lovers in sweet and awesome tortures. Saklas tries to destroy the powerful trio by flood, as he had once destroyed humankind. But the three escape and head north toward Hyperborea, where the shaman Aristeas, once man in Proconnesus, flies in the shape of a raven, and Abaris shamanizes, projecting piercing bird cries. This narrative of ignorance, premonition, dreams, and bewildering revelations ends with the mutual destruction of Prescors an,d_ Saklas and the recovery of Valentinus’s memory.

Bloom’s fantasy does not derive from a gnostic anticosmic mood. It is an excellent sci-fi novel in which, nevertheless, the most elementary trait of all “Alexandrian systems” to which Gnosticism once belonged has been discarded: the verticality of the oppressive layers of the universe, beyond which looms the promise of liberation.

CULIANU, Ioan P., The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism [Les Gnoses Dualistes d’Occident]. Translated into English by H. S. Wiesner Ioan P. Culianu. New York: HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 249-264.

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