“The true heresy: gnosticism, the world religion of worldlessness” – Peter SLOTERDIJK

A world religion has been newly discovered.

Gilles Quispel (1951: 1) on the Nag Hammadi findings

Shortly after the Second World War, which led to the death of forty-two million people according to conservative estimates and fifty-five million according to others, a large clay container filled with numerous papyrus codices in the Coptic language, almost all extraordinarily well preserved, was found at the foot of a crag in the Egyptian desert, about fifty kilometers north of Luxor. Shortly afterwards it was rumored among intellectuals that a “Gnostic library” had been discovered that consisted of fifty-two chiefly unknown treatises in the Sahidic–Coptic language. The few who, in these dark times, kept a clear head – clear enough to register events of intellectual history – soon suspected that it was more than just one archaeological fact among others that had been uncovered here. In 1946, it was as though the reemergence of texts that had gone missing for ages was a sign, a hint from the depths of time to the survivors of the great catastrophe of the “Christian West.” From the sacred desert of Egypt, an inconspicuous signal made its way to the devastated nations. From the place where the holy protest against the world and life had first been radicalized, the overpowered continent received a message that appeared to be subterraneously connected to its current state of affairs. A faint yet undiminished and active spiritual substance beamed forth from the letters inscribed on fragile paper in 1,600-year-old ink. The magic word “Gnosticism” hovered around the find – and, without knowing a single line from the lost gospels, the apprehensive contemporary of the great discovery could read into this word whatever she, in her current condition, would expect from a mystical message. That has remained the case up until this very day: the aura surrounding the Nag Hammadi finding still outshines its content – even though the impressive efforts of translators, editors, and  commentators have meanwhile made all the material available to the public. Furthermore, Nag Hammadi is a mythical name – it stands for the incursion of scandalous and yet plausible countertruths into western memory. In the middle of efforts to clean up after the catastrophe, references to the manuscripts that had just opened up the desert again must have seemed like a call for a forgotten dimension of European history. When the Dutch historian of religion Gilles Quispel held his lectures on Gnosticism at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, hardly five years had passed since the discovery. He was nevertheless certain about the significance of the event: with the rediscovery of authentic ancient Gnostic voices, the Jungian trend in modern psychology had received its historical sanction. He believed that a new Gnosticism could be reflected in the older one, which was now acknowledged; the recurrence of late antiquity at the peak of modernity entered into its hot stage. The phrase “world religion” signals the magnitude of the claim. From now on one would speak of the “soul” as if it were an underestimated world power. Indeed, one would have to give in to the suspicion that it was precisely this underestimating that had been a decisive factor in the fatal turn taken by the world.

Something of  the discontent in Christian European culture has been linked to the name Nag Hammadi. In it there gleams the promise of the wholly other – of what had never come to be and what was never attempted. It appears to symbolize unrealized possibilities of the “western spirit.” It stands for the lost opportunities and suppressed alternatives of the continent that really made world history. Nothing about this can be changed by the sober philology that has meanwhile produced a sophisticated image of the texts. Even after it has been thoroughly edited, the Gnostic library of upper Egypt will retain more of a mythical than a scientific significance: its emergence cooperates with the need for the fundamental revision of a culture that had manifested and unmasked itself in its compulsion for world war. These texts are a mixture of alternative gospels and apocryphal treatises. In the future, they will be read as lost letters to posterity, as messages in bottles stuck in the sand, as classified documents of the world spirit, hidden from the threats of Christian censorship and furnished with the invisible annotation: “Preserve for all time.” They belong in the curriculum of anyone wishing also to get to the historical bottom of the current state of world war and world crisis. In the original writings of the Gnostics, we believe that it is finally possible to encounter the primordial history of all dissidence; the traces of metaphysical revolt are patent in them. The “perfect ones” of the desert had tested what it means to disobey the world to the very end – to the point of  breaking with everything that binds you to the given and to the existent. The authors of Nag Hammadi and their first readers severed themselves from beings. They thereby placed themselves completely into a fanciful offside position, to the left side of creation, far from the powers of the cosmos, into the fullness of having nothing of the world and reality. “After Nag Hammadi” – this phrase has meanwhile become a sort of caesura in the history of ideas. Even Christians must begin to understand that they live after an event in whose light their faith takes on another meaning, one that is still incomprehensible to them. Is Christianity perhaps not Platonism for the people, as Nietzsche once said, but rather Gnosticism for the people?

Yet, even if the codices had not been uncovered from the desert, it would have become necessary in our century to invent them. If, then, we had to formulate a metaphysically relevant reading of this monstrous century, it would have to go as follows: evil must be more than the absence of the good. Whoever experienced the darkest aspects of our epoch cannot escape the impression that evil has an agency entirely of its own, with a lot of staying power and inexhaustible reserves. To speak in mythical terms, at the basis of the world there is a catastrophic fissure gaping wide open, from which evils burst out with wanton violence. Wasn’t this what ancient Gnosticism appeared to be speaking about? When the archaeolo- gists freed the manuscripts from the urn, they caused a surprise that was already due. Today we know: in the Egyptian papers, initially, there was nothing to be read that this era of revisionism had not already braced itself for.

The Nag-Hammadi fever had to subside as soon as people acquired greater knowledge about the texts. It turns out that the old writings mutely resist what we project on them. They continue to remain what they have been for us – hardly legible testaments to an extinct world whose foreignness we are scarcely in a position to appreciate. Perhaps this is also the reason why the interpretive spoils from the sensational archaeological story have been so remarkably thin. The great discovery has yielded no new idea among contemporary mythologists, theologians, and philosophers. So far it has not been able to inspire any new and actually outstanding interpretation of the phenomenon of  Gnosticism – and I say this with all due respect to the brilliant contributions of Harold Bloom, Elaine Pagels, and Peter Koslowski and to the encyclopedic knowledge that has been gained thanks to researcher personalities such as Henri Charles Peuch, Kurt Rudolph, and Simone Petrement. The situation of  research has improved dramatically after Nag Hammadi; even so, the exegetical circumstances before and after have remained peculiarly static. It may appear almost as though our understanding of Gnosticism were something that no contribution from external archeology could improve on, no matter  how  great  it  may  be. The great interpretations of Gnosticism in the last one hundred and fifty years emerged independently of the sensational forays into the “original texts.” For the most part, they drew on indirect sources, in particular the  tendentious,  albeit  precise  reports  by the church fathers. These interpretations were inspired by their authors’ immersion in what one likes to call the spirit of their times. Although the literature on Gnosticism has meanwhile filled up the libraries, profound interpretations of the tradition have remained rare. Until today there have been only two towering works in which the spirit of Gnosticism has been masterfully understood and unfurled again for us: Ferdinand Christian Baur’s voluminous study Die christliche Gnosis oder die christliche Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung [Christian Gnosticism or the Philosophy of Christian Religion in Its Historical Development], from 1835, and volume 1 of Hans Jonas’s inspired work Gnosis und spätantiker Geist [Gnosticism and the Spirit of Late Antiquity], from 1934. As can be seen from the years in which these texts appeared, neither owes anything to the more recent discoveries. Rather they appear to prove that, in order to attain an eminent understanding of the Gnostic cast of mind, one must have got close to one of the two greats of modern “continental” philosophy, Hegel or Heidegger – so close as to open stereoscopic vistas, as it were, into the past of the most profound thinking. Thus, a few years after Hegel’s delivery of his explicit philosophy of religion, Baur discovered in the Gnostics of late antiquity the model for a god who reaches self-awareness [Selbsterfassung] by proceeding through human subjectivity. Thus, a few years after the appearance of Being and Time (1927), Jonas was also able to find the structures of Heideggerian fundamental ontology in the documents of Hellenistic and eastern Gnosticism that were available to him at the time, as well as in Manichaeanism – in particular, he was able to find the basic determinations of world alienation and the appeal to make existence authentic. In both cases, one gets the feeling that great insights into Gnostic thought emerge as a function of decisive philosophical self-interpretations of the modern age rather than as a result of archeological–philological discoveries, however impressive these may be. One could almost conclude that Gnosticism itself is not amenable to any external discovery; nor does it need one. It is not salvaged from urns, but rather reconstructed in radical  meditations  on  the  structures  of the contemporary consciousness of human existence. It can be found only when it is sought in its proper “place”: in the broken containers of subjectivity – with its suffering “from the world” and its unforgotten paradises. This is where Nag Hammadi is really located. Hence, for us, spontaneous Gnosticisms take precedence over traditions. Gnosticism is understood from the hot center of current self-adherence.

SLOTERDIJK, Peter, “The true heresy: gnosticism. On the world religion of wordlessness”, in After God. Transl. by Ian Alexander Moore. Medford (MA): Polity Press, 2020.


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