Gnostic ubiquity

by Michael Colantoni

The Cultural Stream

As we have seen, gnosticism has been the fountain-head of many heretical movements and many unusual religious and sectarian practices.

Modern secret societies, no less than the medieval guilds, have their ‘mysteries’, many of which retain vestiges of what is clearly a gnostic endowment. The Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel discerns gnostic types of religiosity in the Rosicrucians and Freemasons (Yamauchi, 1973, p. 17). According to another writer, Kenneth Rexroth, ‘Alchemy was gnostic through and through’ (Mead, 1960, p. xx).

The history of magic and the occult is crowded with the names of exponents having a distinctively gnostic cast of thought. In contemporary terms this is perhaps best exemplified in the career of the English mage Aleister Crowley (Symonds, 1951). Under his aegis a number of occult organizations sprang up, whose membership made up a constellation of men and women distinguished in literature, the theatre and the arts.

But to return to the main current of the European cultural tradition. The names of the scholastics and other men of learning whose works were condemned as heretical during the middle ages would constitute a roll call of some of the most eminent figures in medieval thought. Later still, strong gnostic elements are found in the work of mystics like Jakob Boehme, himself accused of heresy, and George Fox, who suffered persecution and imprisonment for his teachings; in poets like John Milton, whose great sonnet beginning, ‘Avenge, O Lord! Thy slaughtered saints’, was written on the massacre of the Cathars (Vaudois) in 1655. His Paradise Lost is almost an apotheosis of Satan. According to Blake, Milton was a true poet of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

For his part, William Blake gave vivid and rapturous expression to opinions that are nothing if not gnostic. He spoke frankly of interpreting the Bible ‘in its infernal or diabolical sense.’ Other well-known poets, like Gerard de Nerval, Rainer Maria Rilke and W. B. Yeats, as well as several leading composers have been named in a similar context. Quispel called Mozart ‘a later gnostic.’

Among the novelists we have Novalis, Honore de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka. The German novelist Thomas Mann speaks of gnosticism as ‘Man’s truest knowledge of himself’. Many social, political, even psychological trends, like Puritanism, Marxism, Communism, Nihilism, Nazism and Psycho-analysis have been spoken of in conjunction with the gnostics (Layton, 1980, p. 38). Scientists like Wolfgang Pauli, and certain modern scientific theories, have likewise been drawn into the gnostic ambit.

Among the philosophers we have Blaise Pascal, G. W. F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Invoking the perennial gnostic riddle, Kierkegaard questioned the purpose of ‘this thing called the world’, and asked why he had been created and thus compelled to participate in existence. Existentialism, of which he was one of the founding fathers, is rife with gnostic ideas, as more than one authority has pointed out.

C. G. Jung, whose intuitive mind ranged over a wide field covering many of the obscure cultural byways of European thought, perhaps best summed up the full extent of the gnostic involvement in all the problems that had for so long preoccupied him, when he wrote, ‘All my life I have been working and studying to find these things, and these people knew already’ (Layton, 1980, p. 23).



The gnostic doctrine relating to sin, or spiritual evil, is the cornerstone of their theology.

Today the notion of sin tends to be dismissed as an offensive archaism. It is denounced as a sewer concept, a product of the salacious Puritan mind, breeding guilt and false contrition. Enlightened people prefer to believe in the essential goodness of man, despite his countless and continuing villainies.

Sin is not a Puritan invention. It is basic to every major religion. Perceptive individuals are aware of its constant presence in the human heart. The confessions of those we esteem saints, show that they did not regard themselves as saintly, and with good reason. In our own times, if we needed further evidence, the lewdness and violence lying dormant in our minds has been highlighted by psychoanalysis, and amply demonstrated by the Nazis.

Man is steeped in sin. This was the one tenet to which the gnostics adhered with fierce tenacity. They restored the doctrine of original sin to its original status. In this view even the new-born infant is contaminated with it. When Jesus said of little children, ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 19:14), he was referring, according to the gnostics, to their androgynous state, and not to their innocence.

The taint of sin does not necessarily imply acts. It simply comes from being human. Man does not have to commit sin. He is sinful by nature. He is not just weak, but wicked in essence, evil in a Satanic sense, for he is Satan’s creature.

From this follows the conviction that the sin of man cannot be wiped out by man. Man’s good works do not expiate sin. In any event, man on his own can do no good works, for as the Bible states, without equivocation, ‘All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags’ (Isa. 64:6).

It is expedient for our own welfare to render ‘good works’ unto Caesar. Moral conduct is a social convenience, necessary in order to avoid a situation where the life of man would otherwise be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

The moral qualities that make for a stable society, including the humanitarian and ethical traits we cherish as if they were religious principles, were recognized by the ancients for what they were, and classed by them as mere ‘political virtues’. God, said the gnostic Marcion, is not concerned with them.

Man may give a good or bad account of himself in the contest of life, depending on the stars above, the environment around, and the hormones within. And all these, the Valentinians would say, are counters that are ultimately dealt out by the Prince of Darkness.

The law of Caesar is devoid of spiritual overtones. In Caesar’s realm ‘sin’ can be legislated into or decreed out of existence. The gnostics saw with crystal clarity how easily the law of Caesar could be made to serve the ends of Satan.

In gnosticism the leading dramatis personae in the cosmic theatre are Christ and Lucifer. But in ultimate terms the gnostics were non-dualists, believing that God the Father is the Supreme Being, and is utterly transcendent to the world where the dualist conflict is taking place.

The material world is the preserve of Satan, and we might remain in bondage to him for all time – but for divine grace. St Augustine spoke of the happy fault (Lat.felix culpa), referring to the sin that caused the fall of our first parents, for it was because of this that the human race in time came to know Christ.

By himself, the human being is helpless, in a situation that is hopeless. His only hope lies in Christ. The second, and last, great Christian commandment – to love your neighbour – relates to Caesar’s realm. It only becomes spiritually relevant when the first – to love God – is brought into operation.

And one can only love the transcendent God through a knowledge (gnosis) of Christ. When this understanding is attained, one’s life assumes a new spiritual dimension, and the real virtues then begin to flow from a divine source.

In spite of their docetic views, most gnostics acknowledged the deeper significance of Christ’s death on the cross. It is probably to a gnostic source that we must look for the famous remark attributed to Tertullian concerning the resurrection: ‘It is certain, because it is impossible.’

The gnostics were aware that to the rational mind the incarnation was a fantasy, the crucifixion an offence, and the resurrection an absurdity (see I Cor. 1:23).

All this lies outside the realm of common sense. But those who wish to avoid the absurdities of the Christian faith, and build up an image of Jesus as just another one of a long line of prophets preaching ethics and morals, find they can give no reason why anyone should follow Jesus in preference to another teacher.

Gnostic truth is heterodox, and presents alternative values. It is an allegory, since it speaks in another way. It is a paradox, which means something contrary to received opinion. It is not logical, rational, or even thinkable.

The existentialists, paraphrasing the gnostics, affirmed that Christianity involves the choice of the absurd alternative.


Benjamin Walker – “Gnosticism – Its History and Influence”  1983  (Crucible Edn. pp 185-190)