According to a bon mot of Adolf von Harnack, Gnosticism signifies the acute Hellenization of Christianity. This bon mot would itself remain a profound remark only if one were successful in confirming the hypotheses about the non-Christian origin of Gnosticism. For, wherever Gnosticism may have arisen – in heretical and apocalyptic Judaism, in irrational dualism, in an orientalizing Platonism, in Hermeticism, or somewhere else – we would have to characterize its inner dynamic, in each case, as the collision between an eastern, religious aspect and a Hellenistic, logical one. The conflict between theoretical insight and holy excitement, between jovial discussion and panicked striving for redemption pertains to the restless nature of Gnostic system creation. The chief contradiction of the West – the duality of Athens and Jerusalem – makes its first productive appearance within the space of early Gnostic and early Christian thought. It is the frequently invoked opposition between seeing and hearing, between self-conscious knowledge and faithful obedience. It finds expression in the interreligious quarrel between theologism and fideism. It is potent at the psycho-dynamic level, in the mutual rejection between the charismatic holders of pneumatic credentials and the proudly contrite hearts that down the chalice of first-degree masochism and devote themselves to the edifying thought that we are always in the wrong vis-à-vis God.
The “acute Hellenization of Christianity” also involves a remythologizing of Greek culture. It will be necessary to show that this amounts to more than a colorful regression below the level of Hellenistic theory. Surging from the East is a redeemer myth, which tells of events in time that have essential implications for the truth. This myth effects nothing less than a demolition of the Greek doctrine of timeless beings. The eastern tales of collapse and redemption, of errancy and illumination pressure the Hellenistic spirit to open its static ontology to drama. To this extent, Gnosticism, whether Christian or not, launches an intellectual revolution of unforeseeable consequences. Gnosticism is the first philosophy of the event. It compels Hellenizing ontotheologians to become metaphysical theorists of catastrophe. Philosophers have now to deal with a set of problems that previously was completely unknown to them. It is time for a new sort of self-apprehension of the spirit, as something that has come into the world and exists. It now becomes necessary to assume and theoretically elucidate at least three principal points of catastrophe; these are three fundamental events endowed with such a force as to change the meaning of the world. They are the first catastrophe of creation, the second catastrophe of falling into sin, and the third catastrophe or epistrophē [reversal] of redemption. Creation, fall, and redemption are the three great discontinuities within the continuum of beings. Dealing with them now befalls theological–theoretical thought. Gnosticism and Catholicism part ways on the disputed question of the Fall. For Christianity, Adam was the first one to fall. For Gnosticism, by contrast, the fall of Adam is only a reflex or an implication of the occurrence of a pre-fall [Vor-Fall] “in Heaven.” The great heresy teaches that the first two catastrophes, the creation and the Fall, are basically identical. Insight into this identity is the quintessence of Gnosticism. The world is everything that is in the fall.* Adam is thereby relieved of his burden, and Eve with him. All significant theologies of the next two thousand years will, however, slave away trying to make the doctrine of being into something compatible with the doctrine of the fundamental events. Seen from a broad perspective, the result of these efforts is ironic: the event-theoretical bursting of Hellenistic ontology remains an effect that outweighs the Hellenization of Christianity, which was acute in Gnosticism and took place gradually in the age of scholasticism. It was no longer possible to still the motion of the world under the eyes of a Greek theory. All such attempts had to fail when faced with the Gnostic provocation to think events that have ontological implications. If the world itself is the primary locus for catastrophic events of obfuscation and illumination, then ultimately its dramatic structure will drag theory itself, too, into the flood of time. Heidegger spent his whole life trying to show that his great rival Hegel had not gone far enough in letting himself be taken along by the self-temporalizing of truth. Hegel remained too jovial, too Hellenistic, too theoretical – incapable of considering the trembling of being in existence. Yet the task of thinking of being as time had already been issued, from the moment in late antiquity when the Gnostic impulse began to agitate the souls of humans with questions about “who we were, and what we have become, where we were or where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth.” Under the influence of these Valentinian baptismal formulae, quoted by Clemens of Alexandria in his Excerpta ex Theodoto [Extracts from the Works of Theodotus], philosophical Hellenism would eventually have to surrender. The end of philosophy that Heidegger talks about began nearly two thousand years ago, in the cathartic existentialism of the Gnostic traversal of the world. Already from that point on, being and beings “in the truth” were no longer to be grasped as correlates of a vision tasked with thinking the whole. Rather they were to be seen only as a task and a path for an interiority that was weary of the world and was seeking to pass through and hasten across all beings. Hence one of the first results of the collision between Greek theory and eastern myths of the soul was the elevation of philosophy into a discipline of self-transformation. At any rate, we can say that postmetaphysical philosophy lived on as a method of conversion. What it is able to accomplish is ministering a path of sorts for the benefit of beginners in worldly detachment – or a recess music for the contemplative moments of the children of the world.
Gnosticism inaugurates a transposition of psychological life from nature into history. The manifold myths of the soul’s fall and ascent introduce something new into the psychological time of the world, with all its natural cycles, and the contingent rise and fall of empires. What they introduce is authentically human historicity. The concept of the path [Weg] – hodos – is the great result of this essentialization of time. The Gnostic understanding of the human arrival “in the world” gives rise to a radicalized, path-like way of thinking, in various senses of the word. The human being is a creation that has arrived. On her outward path [Hinweg] that leads “to the world,” she is, to this extent, a soul “in the fall.” Getting caught up in, being born, taking up residence – these are just forms of the soul’s increasing self-forgetfulness in the here below. On the outward path that leads to falling prey, the soul becomes qualified to sojourn in the world by surrendering to what it discovers: the world as a congealed unconsciousness and as habituated oblivion. Giving oneself up for the sake of the massive whole in the world belongs to the structure of the outward path, be it a kathodos [descent] or prohodos [way forward, procession]. The soul is at first compelled to develop its ego by drawing on the preponderance of what is given in the world. It is in just this way that it conforms to what is different from it. The kinetic metaphor of the “plunge” makes evident the violence of the primal alienation of the downward movement. “The human being is the away [das Weg].” The “plunge” – as the unity of a fate that has been suffered and a self-will that has not been illuminated – gives rise to the inner world syndrome of reality fitness, character armor, will to power, and to the entire misunderstanding about the self- preservation experienced by the world self. Gnosticism calls psuchē [soul] this world self that is not even worthy of preserving. The soul willfully inclines toward handing itself over to the prevailing character of the world, as it is in itself, and toward becoming like it and like everything in it. This constitutes the necessary tragedy of human existence along the outward path. But, insofar as it is a path, the outward path – the path of wandering off into the world and of becoming like it – is also distinguished as an occurrence within authentic time. As a phase of self-forgetting – which recently has also been called “involution” – it prepares the possibility for a turn, a path back, an evolution. When the turn takes place, the reignited pneumatic self is suffused with the light of authentic historicity. This light retrospectively illuminates the time of errancy and transfigures the “remainder of time” into the path of (redemptive) resolution. From the point of the turn onward, to exist means to turn back, to unbind oneself, to take oneself back. On the path back [Rückweg], on the anodos [way up], the self gradually gives its own psuchē – the inner sediment of life in the trash of the world – back to the cosmos. This gradual return of properties is most beautifully depicted in the treatise Poimandres from the Corpus hermeticum. The self effectively works itself back out of the prison of having become. In doing so it must choose between two extremely different styles of redemption: “to undergo everything” or “no longer to have contact with anything.” The amoral style leads to a homeopathic askesis: this weakens the evil by perpetrating it thoughtfully, ironically as it were, like a task to be accomplished. The Gnostic embraces sin and, in going through it, experiences his body decay in a critical manner. When he is spent, he can then at last climb out of the gutter – the world is a pornographic purgatory from which spotless pneumata [spirits] are filtered out. By contrast, the abstinent style deploys allopathic devices against the sickness of the world. It administers an immediate flight from the world as antidote to the poison of the cosmos. Civil disobedience against the belly, general strike against the astral factory, baths in tears, fasting of the heart – these are the mêlée weapons of Gnostic sapience. This dissociative askesis dreams of refuting reality by being constantly other than it. But, when the soul has shaken off the dust of its acquired properties, it grasps itself in its original freedom from properties, as though for the first time and yet once again – as something perfect, something that has not come to be, something hovering. The complete measure of de-worlding is able to fall to the soul in its rapture; from then on the soul lets its own production of “time” fall away like a final crutch. We would admittedly be hard pressed to express this “experience” in language – other than that of a complete displacement. In the fulfilled moment, “being in the world” has come to be, again, a “being in God.” The extreme fascination with this return includes the representation of a happy end in the lap of the Father. A faint fever of death may accompany the fantasies of cessation in God. If great resignation is at play here, it would be marked more by the phantasm of retuning to the pleromatic, logico-paternal seed than by the urge toward demise in the dark lap of the mother.
It is easy to recognize that the discovery of authentic time in the Gnostic’s awareness of passing through the world prepared a pattern of thinking we are familiar with from the so-called philosophies of history. Authentic time – the event order of outward path, U turn, return path, which is generative of truth – is, first and foremost, a matter for individuals alone. There is an acute individual–eschatological feeling at the core of Gnosticism. Only for souls is there a total movement from the first through the middle to the last – and souls “exist” per se as living singulars. If the great loop of going away and turning back describes the structure of the path of the individual “in the world,” it follows that to exist as a human in authentic time – that is, to exist in light of the essential historicity of self-knowledge – can take place only for those individuals who have resolved to be themselves and have converted to the process of de-worlding. All “authentic” temporality is thus the historicality of the path to salvation and the historicality of the soul’s self-comprehension. There are no other subjects of “authentic history” than individuals.
There is a certain steadfastness to defending this knowledge against the temptation to get involved in the affairs of external history. Whoever gives in to this temptation gets sucked into the undertow of the philosophy of history, where there is a proliferation of speculation about the salvation of what cannot be saved. Then the idea of saving the whole world begins to flourish. Here we always find false answers to the inherently right question of what must happen in the history of the world for it to be more than a calamitous evil, sometimes well masked and sometimes not. Yet it is only by means of an illegitimate projection that authentic, salva- tional–historical time can be transferred to collective magnitudes in the world. As a rule, the result of such projections is fatal. They typically end up idolizing the masses in “decisive” movements – whether these be churches or parties, peoples or states, moral orders or cognitive elites. To appreciate just how powerful this undertow is, one need only look at Heidegger, who lapsed into belief in the possi- bility of an ethnic–nationalistic [völkisch] authenticity, a German “turn.” The philosophy of history emerges from the misleading transference of Gnostic logics of the path to the developmental course of world powers. Hegel demonstrated this in exemplary fashion, albeit with the help of a world spirit that took precedence over world powers. The betrayal of the movement of the world itself by the schema of a redemption from the world is not immediately evident. Only at a second glance does one notice with what lack of concern, indeed in what grobian spirit the pseudo-Gnostic in the Prussian civil service has sacrificed the soul of the individual in need of redemption to the learning Moloch of world spirit. Since Kierkegaard, individuals have demanded their soul back from the philosophers of history. “The crowd is untruth.”
Owing to the irreducible multiplicity of pneumata, the Gnostic novel of self-knowledge will be written in many different ways. Because every individual narrative is projected from one’s own position on a path, there cannot be a universally acceptable or valid image of “the” path itself. “My path” [Weg] is, fundamentally and uniquely, a movement [Bewegung] on the beam of my coming into the world. In the vulgar versions of Gnosticism, however, the spirit of individuals does not reach a point beyond mythical external perspec- tives on being on the way. Then the interested party reads soul stories as if they were metaphysical dime novels in which God and pneuma always end up fighting. Plotinus’s polemic against the ones he calls Gnostics, who continually move about “as though in a dream,” with “horror stories in the heavens” before their eyes, is a case in point. When greater logical forces come into play, it is understood that the mythologists’ soul stories can be used only as a propaedeutic; one must leave them behind as beginners’ material and replace them with instructions for one’s “own” elevation to unworldliness. The flights of fancy through the externalized heavens must give way to a nonob- jective, internalizing recollection [Er-Innerung]. In the very mature and clear Gnosis – and we may, with Hans Jonas, place in it the thought of Origen, and even that of Plotinus, at least in certain respects – the task is to train the soul, ethically and noetically, so as to make it able, as it were, “to join in the process of thinking” the emanation of the supra-existent One right up to the world and to the ego. The clearer the Gnostic temperament, the more serene its understanding of the kathodos– or prohodos-related stretches of the path; it empathizes with the gods’ universally divine embarrassment about having to sully their name by creating or allowing an actual world. With speculative mirth, the greatest thinkers of late antiquity have understood how to reenact God’s abasement into the world and the dissemination of individual souls into the field of becoming. For them, the catastrophe index of the world’s events is at a low point; they let beings “flow down” from God at many soft levels of emanation.
Here we come to the modern philosophical form of thought called “system.” It emerges from the logical reworking of God’s unfolding into the world of appearances. Thinking “systematically” is a paradoxical result of the Gnostic subordination of theoretical vision to the consciousness of the path: whoever thinks of “paths” will in some way also form the notion of the “total path”; this is the kernel of the idea of “system.” Although working on one seems to be theoretical and atemporal, existentially it already tumbles onto the path back. (“If you wish to know what I was: Through the Logos I have joked in everything, and have not thereby become a joke. / I hopped; / But you grasp the whole.” The Dance Song of Jesus from the Acts of John.) In its upward, anodos-related movement, the soul tends to its apotheiōsis, divinization through insight. As soon as it knows that it is close to it, it looks back on its own period of obscurity almost in gratitude, one could say; after the reversal, it feels, for the rest of its life, the sweetness of an error overcome. To think greatly means to have erred greatly. Happy theory lives on the promise of overcoming the ontological precedence of anxiety.
Not so with the dark temperaments. For them, the downward, kathodos-related branch of the curve into the world remains a highly catastrophic plunge – a hellish journey into the unforgivable. The concern of such catastrophists must be entirely for redemption from the world’s spell. They run against the cosmic wall, the fence of doom. As impatient seekers of the path out or as athletes of universal suffering, they work out only the upward branch of their existential curve; if they are thorough, this is only about going back. As witnesses for the prosecution against totality, pregnant as it is with death, they give it their best. They gleefully polemicize against the infamous equanimity of their white Gnostic colleagues, who take their time to paint the picture of the outward path. For them, the theorization of the path is the errant path par excellence – just as they think that the theorization of evil delivers you into the hands of evil itself. Gershom Scholem went so far as to lament it as a calamity that the Kabbalah depicted the path from God to the world in Plotinizing style, as a mild outpouring, rather than holding fast to the pure dark doctrine of the primal catastrophe in God. But even catastrophists are receptive to the dialectical appeal of being propped up. “I do not forgive myself for being born. It is as if, creeping into this world, I had profaned a mystery, betrayed some momentous pledge, committed a fault of nameless gravity. Yet in a less assured mood, birth seems a calamity I would be miserable not having known.” (Cioran) What would the way back be, if the world did not exist as something whose darkness one must flee, where the flight alone is what gives meaning to the rest of time? Even dark Gnosticism needs the scandalous world in order to flee from it.
* A pun with the first sentence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist, “The world is everything that is the case [Fall]”.
SLOTERDIJK, Peter, After God. Transl. by Ian Alexander Moore. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020.