Going far back into the ancient world, recurring in cultures widely separated in space and time, surfacing in religion, philosophy and the occult, exercising a powerful influence in modern science and politics, Gnosticism has coexisted and competed with, secreted itself within and hidden itself from many other ways of thinking. There have been Gnostic strands in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Mithraism and Orphism, while Gnostic ideas established a powerful presence in Greek philosophy among some of the later followers of Plato.
The origins of Gnosticism have not been traced, but it seems to have emerged as a fully fledged world-view around the same time as Christianity. Like other Jewish prophets of the time, Jesus may have been influenced by Zoroastrian traditions that understood human life in terms of a war between good and evil. Christianity – the religion conjured from Jesus’ life and sayings by St Paul – always contained Gnostic currents, though these were condemned as heresies that threatened the authority of the Church.
Gnostic ideas are far from being distinctively modern, but they emerged in more overt forms with the rise of the Renaissance. Revered by rationalists as the time when classical civilization was rediscovered, this was a period in which belief in magic flourished at the highest levels of the state. Alchemists and spirit-seers were regularly consulted at the court of Elizabeth, and even as older forms of religion were abandoned new types of magic were spreading. The seventeenth-century German astrologer and astronomer, mathematician and mystic Johannes Kepler is an emblematic Renaissance figure. While he believed in a cosmos governed by principles of order and harmony, Kepler set in motion a shift towards a world-view in which any laws that existed in the universe were mechanical and devoid of purpose. Other early modern scientists were similarly ambiguous. Isaac Newton was the founder of modern physics, but he was also a believer in alchemy and numerology and searched the apocalyptic books of the Bible for hidden meaning. The scientific revolution was, in many ways, a by-product of mysticism and magic. In fact, once the tangled origins of modern science are unravelled, it is doubtful whether a ‘scientific revolution’ occurred.
The novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell presented a modern version of the Gnostic vision in a series of novels, The Avignon Quintet (1974–85). Akkad, an Egyptian merchant-banker who is also a latter-day Gnostic, preaches to small groups of European expatriates. At times plump and sluggish-looking, at others looking ascetic and haggard, at home in four capitals and speaking as many languages or more, sometimes wearing western clothes and sometimes traditional dress, Akkad offers to piece together the surviving fragments of Gnostic teaching, which the established religions had tried to destroy:
the bitter central truth of the gnostics: the horrifying realisation that the world of the Good God was a dead one, and that He had been replaced by a usurper – a God of Evil … It was the deep realisation of this truth, and its proclamation that had caused the gnostics to be suppressed, censored, destroyed. Humanity is too frail to face the truth about things – but to anyone who confronts the reality of nature and of process with a clear mind, the answer is completely inescapable: Evil rules the day.
What sort of God, the gnostic asks himself, could have organised things the way they are – this munching world of death and dissolution which pretends to have a Saviour, and a fountain of good at its base? What sort of God could have built this malefic machine of destruction, of self-immolation? Only the very spirit of the dark negative death-trend in nature – the spirit of nothingness and auto-annihilation. A world in which we are each other’s food, each other’s prey …
Seeing the world as an evil piece of work, the Gnostics advanced a new vision of freedom. Humans were no longer part of a scheme of things in which freedom meant obedience to law. To be free, humans must revolt against the laws that govern earthly things. Refusing the constraints that go with being a fleshly creature, they must exit from the material world.
While modern science might seem inhospitable to this Gnostic vision, the opposite has proved to be the case. As we understand it today, the cosmos is no longer ruled by laws that express any overarching purpose – benign or otherwise. In fact the world we live in may not be a cosmos at all. The seeming laws of nature may be regularities that express no abiding laws, and for all we know the universe may be at bottom chaotic. Yet the project of liberating the spirit from the material world has not disappeared. The dream of finding freedom by rebelling against cosmic law has reappeared as the belief that humans can somehow make themselves masters of nature.
The crystallographer J. D. Bernal (1901–71) illustrates how Gnostic ideas infuse modern science. At one time ranked among Britain’s most influential scientists, a lifelong communist and proud recipient of a Stalin Peace Prize, Bernal was convinced that a scientifically planned society was being created in the Soviet Union. But his ambitions went beyond the rational reconstruction of human institutions. He was convinced that science could effect a shift in evolution in which human beings would cease to be biological organisms. As the historian of science Philip Ball has described it, Bernal’s dream was that human society would be replaced by ‘a Utopia of post-human cyborgs with machine bodies created by surgical techniques’. Even this fantasy did not exhaust Bernal’s ambitions. Further in the future, he envisioned ‘an erasure of individuality and mortality’ in which human beings would cease to be distinct physical entities.
In a passage in his book The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, Bernal spells out what he has in mind: ‘Consciousness itself might end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.’
Bernal published his book in 1929, but ideas very like his are being promoted at the present time. Similar conceptions inform the vision of the Singularity of the futurologist and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil – an explosive increase in knowledge that will enable humans to emancipate themselves from the material world and cease to be biological organisms. The subtitle of Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near is When Humans Transcend Biology, and while the technologies involved are different – uploading brain information into cyberspace rather than using surgery to build a cyborg – the ultimate goal of freeing the human mind from confinement in matter is the same as Bernal’s. The affinities between these ideas and Gnosticism are clear. Here as elsewhere, secular thinking is shaped by forgotten or repressed religion.
Whether ancient or modern, Gnosticism turns on two articles of faith. First there is the conviction that humans are sparks of consciousness confined in the material world. The Gnostics did not deny that order existed in the world; but they viewed this order as a manifestation of evil to which they refused to submit. For them the creator was at best a blunderer, negligent or forgetful of the world it had fashioned, and possibly senile, mad or long dead; it was a minor, insubordinate and malevolent demiurge that ruled the world. Trapped in a dark cosmos, human beings were kept in submission by a trance-like ignorance of their true situation. Here we come to the second formative idea: humans can escape this slavery by acquiring a special kind of knowledge. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge, and for Gnostics knowledge is the key to freedom.
As Gnostics see them, humans are ill-designed and badly made creatures, gifted or cursed with flickering insight into their actual condition. Once they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, they discover they are strangers in the universe. From that point onwards, they live at war with themselves and the world.
In asserting that the world is evil, the Gnostics parted company with more ancient ways of thinking. Ancient Egyptian and Indian religion saw the world as containing light and dark, good and bad, but these were a pair that alternated in cycles rather than being locked in any sort of cosmic struggle. Animist conceptions in which the world is an interplay of creative and destructive forces frame a similar view of things. In a universe of this kind the problem of evil that has tormented generations of apologists for monotheism does not exist.
The idea of evil as an active force may have originated with Zoroaster. An Iranian prophet who lived some centuries before Christ (the exact dates are disputed), Zoroaster not only viewed the world as the site of a war between light and dark but believed light could win. Some centuries later another Iranian prophet – Mani, the founder of Manichaeism – also affirmed that good could prevail, though he seems to have believed that victory was not assured. It may have been around this time that the sensation of wavering between alternatives crystallized into an idea of free will.
The idea of a demonic presence in the world emerged with dualistic faiths. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, where Satan features as an adversarial figure rather than a personification of evil. It is only in the New Testament that evil appears as a diabolical agency, and throughout its history Christianity has struggled to reconcile this notion of evil with belief in a God that is all good and all powerful.
A convert from the religion of Mani, Augustine tried to resolve the conundrum by suggesting that evil was the absence of goodness – a fall from grace that came about through the misuse of free will. But there always remained a strand in Christianity that saw good and evil as opposed forces. Composed in the early thirteenth century, the most systematic surviving work of Cathar theology, The Book of the Two Principles, asserts that along with the principle of good there is another principle, ‘one of evil, who is mighty in iniquity, from whom the power of Satan and of darkness and all other powers which are inimical to the true Lord God are exclusively and essentially derived’. In support of this view, the Cathar tract goes on to quote Jesus saying (Matthew 7: 18), ‘A good tree cannot being forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.’
However such sayings are interpreted, the Christian religion has always been compounded from conflicting elements. There is no pristine tradition at the back of Christianity, Gnosticism or any other religion. The search for origins ends with the discovery of fragments.
The idea of evil as it appears in modern secular thought is an inheritance from Christianity. To be sure, rationalists have repudiated the idea; but it is not long before they find they cannot do without it. What has been understood as evil in the past, they insist, is error – a product of ignorance that human beings can overcome. Here they are repeating a Zoroastrian theme, which was absorbed into later versions of monotheism: the belief that ‘as the “lord of creation” man is at the forefront of the contest between the powers of Truth and Untruth.’ But how to account for the fact that humankind is deaf to the voice of reason? At this point rationalists invoke sinister interests – wicked priests, profiteers from superstition, malignant enemies of enlightenment, secular incarnations of the forces of evil.
As so often is the case, secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. Modern rationalists reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it. Seeing themselves as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark. They are left with the same problem of evil that faces religion. The difference is that religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty, while secular believers do not.
Aware of the evil in themselves, traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers dream of creating a higher species. They have not noticed the fatal flaw in their schemes: any such species will be created by actually existing human beings.
GRAY, John, “The Faith of Puppets”, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom. London: Penguin, 2015.