Modern Gnosticism: Endless Torment

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The Kosmos Conception

The kosmos, as an intelligible order encompassing all that exists, emerges in the West, notes the philosopher Remi Brague, with the Greeks. Among the four models he explores in his wonderful book The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought (2003), it’s the last one on Gnosticism that I feel is worth unpacking here.

Gnosticism is the “bad boy” of the bunch that otherwise includes a Platonic, an Epicurean, and a biblical model in that, around 2nd C CE, it begins to challenge, without yet breaking, the mold. It presents this challenge by advancing not an alternative kosmos but instead, and more radically so, an “anticosmism” (p. 62).

Anticosmism, Part 1: Gnosticism

I’d like to dwell with you on this anticosmism because I believe it portends one modern sensibility that, through a reading of Gnosticism, can thus be brought out.

And what is the world (or universe) according to Gnostics? It is “the epitome of evil, a trap and a prison” (p. 70). This is to say that “[t]he world is not our natural habitat” (p. 68). This material plane is one onto which we human beings have been “thrown.” So thrown, we don’t find, nor can we catch, our footing hither or thither.

If the world is not a natural habitat for us, if it is not a proper dwelling place, then what of the soul? The soul, which has been “thrown into the world,” is and remains–just so long as it has not transcended this prison–“a stranger in the world” (p. 69). This is alienation of the highest degree.

In brief, we are strangers in a fallen, ill-begotten world, one that has either been “botched” or one that is the product of an evil demiurge. Thus, what is felt on all sides is a gnawing anguish: “Anguish is in fact the raw material of the world: the world is not only in anguish, it is so to speak “of” anguish the way a plank is made of wood” (p. 67).

Accordingly, the soul “seeks an exit” (p. 69), a way out of this anguish, and thus the deep need for gnosis, or salvific knowledge.

Anticosmism, Part 2: Modern Gnosticism

I think we can find a parallel with Gnosticism in modern society; I’ll deign to call this parallel “modern Gnosticism.” The essence of this particular modern sensibility is torment, a riven, twisted, burdened spirit.

To begin with, far from there being a kosmos (for more on the latter, see, e.g., here), the world is instead nothing but a hard place, one indeed that is not fit for humans. It’s this lack of fitness that gives us not acosmism (about which I’ve also written) but a decidedly anticosmic bent. From this disenchanted moment in modern history, it can’t be said that a devil created this modern form but it can be thought, among modern, partially secularized Gnostics, that it’s as if an evil demiurge had created this almost insufferable place.

Because the world is a hard, insufferable place, humans must struggle into perpetuity. The struggle involves bringing all that we have in order to meet the daily grind, the ceaseless–or, perhaps just as bad, intermittent–onslaught of bad news. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another… We might say that this struggle cultivates in one a certain dark humor together with a graveness. The world weighs on human shoulders, on backs, on shattered feet and doleful hearts.

It might be wondered at why there is no eschatology in this picture, but, apart from gesturing to modern Gnosticism’s emergence in a post-Christian time, no more need be said on this score in this post. It’s enough, here, to gesture at the halfhearted nature of modern Gnosticism’s response: we are to find succor by banding together in our woe, our torment so that, through this means, we may experience bouts of relief, those that alleviate the burden before passing away in turn. Our burdens can’t be lifted; they can only be set down–before they’re picked back up–through the consolations–sought after yet unfulfilling–that we offer one another. This is a journey we take alone and with each other, one that ultimately can go nowhere. Still, we must take it. And take it. And undertake it.

We must take it because there is no other: there is, modern Gnostics everywhere aver more in their actions than in their words, no exit, no salvation, no liberation. We can’t rest here and we can’t leave. We are tormented, hollowed out through and through.

Metaphysics and Eschatology

I offer this post in the spirit of friendship. Compassion is to be given to those stuck in modern Gnosticism. At the same time, seeing the limits of this sensibility is paramount. For the deepest problem of our time is religio, the binding–or rebinding–of the human to the divine. For this, what is required is a metaphysics inclusive of the Godhead and of the kosmos as well as–and flowing from such a metaphysics–an eschatology that shows, through gentle feet and guiding hands, the way back Home. That metaphysics, I argue, is nonduality, and the eschatology is centered on moksha, or liberation. Home, it can be directly seen, is, has always been, cannot but be underfoot.