31. A gnostic outlook

The gnosis, a way of knowing

The gnosis (literary: knowledge) is a collective noun for a belief which put its own insight as a central feature. The Gnosis is, in a more specific sense, the Christian-Egyptian theological-philosophical system, which flowered between 80 and 200 AD. The way of thinking offers a view in the final stages of the Egyptian tetradic narrative in relation to the Christian adaptation of this theme.

The discovery of the ‘Naq Hammadi‘ library, near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, gave a better insight in the spiritual-gnostic world, which existed in the Nile-delta and its major city Alexandria in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Christian Gnostic texts were Coptic translations from around 350 to 400 AD of original work, which was dated between 120 and 150 AD (PAGELS, 1979).

The following axioms are essential in the Gnostic outlook:

1. Self-knowledge is the same as knowledge of God. The self (of man) and the divine are identical.

2. Jesus lived for enlightenment and not to bring a message of sin and repentance.

3. Jesus does not distinguish himself of mankind, because God and mankind are identical. He is no God, but a spiritual leader.

The gnosis leads to insight and liberation (apolytrosis) and has the function of a creative discovery, which influences the life of the believer. Before the insight is reached, the attention of the believer is pointed to the wrong God, the Demiurgos. After the power of the Demiurg (Creator) is broken, the perspective is shifted to the right God, the Great Depth. This is a dualistic element in the Gnosis.

FERGUSON (1970), who regarded the end of the second century AD as ‘the most fascinating period’ in the development of the religions in the Roman Empire, typified the character of the gnosis as: ‘the dualism is Persian, the language Platonic, the mood Hellenistic and the system anti-Judaic.’ Gnosticism was, according to him, a ‘cult of the Great Mother under another name’, with reference to the feminine archetype in the worship of Isis (Egypt), Artemis (Greek) and Cybele (Roman world).

Plotinus used the accusation of the dualistic element in the gnosis to criticize its credentials (FILORAMO, 1990). However, Plotinus might not be the right person to criticize, because his own thoughts and the gnosis are both rooted in the ‘secret tradition’ of Egyptian tetradic thinking, which went through a revival in Alexandria and the lower Nile-delta in the period around 200 AD.

The old tradition envisaged a dichotomous division in the series 2 – 4 – 8, corresponding with types of division thinking. Valentinus (c. 140) was a gnostic poet, who used the different steps as a schema in his compilation work ‘Pistis-Sophia‘ (HOPPER, 1938/1977). The world consisted of two parts: a visible (physical) and invisible (spiritual) part. In the invisible part is a spiritual order (pleroma) (fig. 213).


Fig. 213 – The spiritual order in the Gnostic belief as the ‘blessedness’ of the figure 8 (ogdad). The first tetrad gives a partition of the unknown world, and the second tetrad does the same for the imaginable world. Both consist of four quadrants: I. The invisible invisibility (depth/word); II. The invisible visibility (idea/life); III. the visible visibility (intellect/human) and IV.  The visible invisibility (truth/church).

The non-hierarchical element in the gnostic belief, denying the power of bishops and priests, resulted in a condemnation of the young Christian church. The masculine elements, which are so typical for the Semitic beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Father, king, lord, master, and judge), were rejected by the ‘pneumatici’ (the spiritual enlighted). Their meetings were held in a non-authoritarian, rotating way, in which the different social functions were decided by chance.

The gnostic way of life has been often obscured in the European cultural history, although many features are directly related to the ancient knowledge. The monastic movement consisted, for instance, of believers who searched for individual loneliness or collective seclusion to celebrate their insight and knowledge, and showed – particular in the first centuries AD – a gnostic aspect. Later, other motives of a dualistic nature were also involved.

A good example was the successful order of the Cistercians (SCHNEIDER et al., 1977; LEKAI, 1980), which became in a relative short period a multinational power, putting the organization of agricultural labour in action. Their material success was largely due to the symbiosis between God and earth, using the first to exploit the second and end up rich in due course. By that time, the gnostic/tetradic way of thinking was replaced by a material/dualistic outlook. The Benedictine dictum ‘Ora et labora!’ (Pray and work), preached by an order, which flowered in the same period as the Cistercians, leaves little doubt in that direction.

The gnosis is, at the present time, a rather vague concept and of little practical use if the intention is not clearly stated. There are indications, from a psychological point of view, that the original  ‘gnosis‘ was a renewal of the old-Egyptian tetradic way of thinking. However, the Naq-Hammadi-writings added little to the understanding of their original meaning (just like the New Testament – except for the Book of Revelations – has little reference to the gnostic system). The work of later (European) magic ‘gnostics’ obscured the matter even further.

FERGUSON, John (1970). The Religions of the Roman Empire. Thames and Hudson, London.

FILORAMO,  Giovanni (1990).  A History of Gnosticism (tr. A. Alcock). Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

HOPPER, Vincent F. (1938/1977). Medieval number symbolism. Its sources, meaning and influence on thought and expression. Columbia University Studies in English and Comp. Lit. No. 132, Norwood Editions.

LEKAI, Louis J. (1980). De orde van Citeaux: Cisterciënsers en Trappisten. Idealen en werkelijkheid (The Cistercians, Ideals and Reality; The Kent State University Press, 1977; tr. V. Hermans & D. Metze-maekers, Abdij Achel). Uitgeverij Sinite Parvulos VBVB, Achel.

PAGELS,  Elaine (1979).  The Gnostic Gospels. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

SCHNEIDER, Ambrosius; WIENAND, Adam; BICKEL, Wolfgang & COESTER, Ernst (1977).  Die Cistercienzer.  Geschichte.  Geist.  Kunst.  Wienand   Verlag, Köln. ISBN 3 87909 074 2

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