Ur-Gnosticism [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 26 seconds. Contains 2487 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter where I discover a trove of Alex Jones’ self-help secrets in the middle of writing and completely lose my train of thought out of glee.
(Ask if you want to know more, this isn’t an Alex Jones newsletter. Or you can listen to this lovely podcast about it)
Also, I’ve decided I hate doing paywalled newsletters and don’t want to do them anymore. Going to have to think about what else I can do. But that’s future-me’s problem.
Anyway, finally got my Theosophy guy locked into a time for an interview tomorrow. Probably means the last Cultic milieu newsletter will be up as a mid-week Christmas Special.
Chances of talking with an expert and coming out of it with less to read are pretty low, right?
Anyway, that’s all process shit.
Let’s get into the meat.
The Reoccurrence of Eternal Gnosticism
As I’ve been going through more and more shit from early Christian Gnosticism and some of the hints of pre-Christian Gnosticism, a few things are becoming more clear to me.
First, it seems very likely to me that “Gnosticism” as a historic category isn’t coherent. It’s a project of ancient Orthodoxy polemicists like Irenaeus of Lyon and modern scholars.
Pretty much as soon as I heard the thesis I recognized it as being probably true.
Much of the appeal of Gnosticism comes from the combination of being suppressed/secret and ambiguous. Because we do not have specific knowledge of what most Gnostics believed and how they understood their ideas, we must fill in the blanks somehow. And that’s very satisfying to a certain kind of person (hi).
Because of the Orthodoxist’s destruction of original works, we’ve largely lost any access to the community of discourse that interpreted even the surviving texts. And since we’re explicitly dealing with texts alleging secret knowledge shrouded in allegory and only accessible to initiates, it may not be possible to access their original work without, well, divine inspiration.
And there are a lot of reasons why that is a dangerous game to play.
If you’ve not read Jon Krakauer’s superb Under The Banner of Heaven, I *highly* recommend it here. It deals with a modern example of the practical problems with a form of Gnosis in a religious community and how acknowledgment of direct revelation dissolves religious authority.
In this case, prophecy in the Mormon church of Latter-Day Saints. And how the LDS’ acceptance of prophecy as something anyone can do leads to a persistent fringe of radicalized Fundamentalists who sometimes become violent.
The same structure that lead to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints’ pervasive child abuse. PS: Warren Jeffs is one of a handful of people who makes me wish there was a hell. It’s a whole story.
Point being, if you want to uphold a stable society allowing direct revelations from the divine will not help you.
Another cultural moment my reading on Gnosticism reminds me of is the arguments between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists as part of the process to ratify the US Constitution in 1787-91.
See, the Federalists are often written as the great heroes and protectors of the American Experiment defending our sacred creation pact from all the malicious fools who might doom our emerging empire if they were allowed to muck it up.
With big names like James Madison and worst founding father Alexander Hamilton (#AaronBurrWasRight, #AaronBurrWasntRightButHeDidShootHamilton), and their best arguments packaged together in the Federalist Papers, it’s easy to hold them up as the great men who defined our nation and its path to greatness.
But if you peel away the gloss and hunt down some antifederalists you find that a great many of them had real concerns many of which we’re still dealing with. My personal favorite, Herman Husband, pointed out how the constitution was built to support the aristocracy and uphold the evils of slavery as an economic institution.
He’d get arrested as one of the leaders of the whiskey so-called rebellion a few years later for his troubles.
Since the antifederalists weren’t a coherent group and many of them outright hated each other, it was easy for the more well-connected and unified federalists to outmaneuver them.
Starting to see the comparison? We can view it roughly the same way modern Democrats and Republicans form an establishment block that keeps most of the same foreign and domestic policy in place, blah blah neoliberalism, against scattered milieus of special interest people on both the right and left.
The early Christian gnostics were another such milieu.
This brings us to the comparison that’s responsible for the title of this piece.
There’s another milieu-style ideology promising otherwise inaccessible transformation and nonrational answers. Surprise! It’s fascism again.
Ever since having a few people I met through mutual interest in Gnosticism go far enough to the right to start screaming about how Hitler was trying to save Europe and is being smeared by “them”, I’ve been very interested in trying to parse how and why that happened.
For me, Gnosticism is kind of inherently anti-authoritarian and counter-cultural.
I happened to reject binary good and evil in a morally complex way, where the gnostic-to-nazi pipeline types I’ve seen simply flip the script: If the people in the ruling class who claim to be good are evil, then the people they claim are evil must be good.
Accept that awful logic and now you’re stanning Hitler. Oops. Certain kinds of leftists pull the same shit, of course. And that’s not any better thinking.
The combination of fascism’s syncretism and opportunism makes it notoriously difficult to define in a clear and consistent way.
Umberto Eco’s patch for this difficulty was to create a list of symptoms for what he called “Eternal Fascism” as a reoccurring constellation of elements that can feed into a growing fascist movement.
None of them makes a fascist movement by itself, but each is a kind of substrate on which fascism can grow and develop.
Here are Eco’s 14 points:
The Cult of Tradition
Rejection of modernism
The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
Disagreement is treason
Fear of difference
Appeal to a frustrated middle class
Obsession with a plot
Enemies who are simultaneously too strong and too weak.
Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy because life is permanent warfare
Contempt for the weak
Everyone is educated to become a hero/embrace the cult of death
You can find the rest of his essay here. It’s very good, though far from the last word on the subject.
The point is that more an intellectual attractor or Telos than it’s any particular component. Like sliding down a wall of entropy back into Tyranny.
I think a similar approach might be ideal for identifying elements of Gnosticism. Unlike fascism, which usually seeks to build a mass movement, Gnosticism is usually defined by small self-selected groups in opposition to a larger cultural mainstream.
I’m not even sure a Gnostic mass movement is particularly possible since the nature of Gnosis almost demands endless schisms.
Some wings of Qanon approach it, but even there it varies widely how emphasized the Gnostic elements are.
So here’s a draft of the pieces I think could make an Ur-Gnosticism:
The Paranoid Style
Syncretism and Opportunism
The Mainstream is asleep, deluded, or otherwise not fully alive/awake.
Contempt for Orthodoxy/Institutions
Obsession With The Plot
Obsession with Escape/Transcendence
Things Are Not As They Seem/contrarianism
Claiming a Legacy of Oppression
Disagreement is persecution, Persecution is proof
I don’t think this is comprehensive yet. This is going to require a lot of revisions, I think. There’s considerable overlap between these and I keep thinking of new stuff to add to it as I write.
What I’m proposing is Gnosticism as a kind of perennial snake in the garden of consensus knowledge networks. You get there by riding disagreement and suspicion to their less practical ends.
Before we run through each element, I want to be clear on something. First, I’m aiming for these to be somewhat ahistoric. I’m *wink* trying to pull a deeper nature than stated doctrine. This approach means I’m kinda inherently going to misrepresent specific groups and tradition claims.
What’s visible is the junk at the edge of the ball, but it’s the Katamari itself I’m trying to describe here.
Yes, I’m just kinda making up an ideal here. But I feel that itself is pretty in line with gnostic ideas. :-D
So let’s dig into the points a little more.
1. The Paranoid Style
With this, I’m referencing a classic political essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter.
While early Christian Gnostics took a more positive view of this, it’s long since become standard for the assumption of a secret plot being run against someone or maybe everyone.
Suspicion is the essence here. The mindset of “Natural cures THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT” as applied to metaphysics and theology.
2. Nonrational Authority
THE TRUTH doesn’t come from the exercise of reason or careful study of the natural/phenomenological world.
It comes from closed experiences that can’t be replicated but impose significant demands on reality.
Modern occultists and the like have a handy term for mediating disputes from conflicting claims from revelation: Unverified Personal Gnosis.
The exact methods of achieving this knowledge vary widely and are less important than the experiences they generate and the knowledge drawn from that.
3. Syncretism and Opportunism
Gnosis, like psychedelic experiences, tends towards remixing knowledge, ideas, images, and motifs already familiar to the initiate/victim. If nothing else, we require the familiar ideas to reference to explain what happened.
Because of that, Gnosis tends to begin more by reordering what’s around than building a whole new system from scratch.
Since there’s no traditional boundary, anything is fair game. Even tradition.
4. The Mainstream isn’t Fully Human
WAKE UP SHEEPLE.
Non-sovereign citizens are government slave chattels.
Ignorance of one’s true nature means you can’t express it for real, which leads to living a half-life. Think Thoroeu’s “The Mass of Men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
There are a thousand narratives like this where ignorance of the Proprietary Gnostic Truth means you’re not really real.
5. Moral Contrarianism
Because the “Mainstream” lies, their moral claims also can’t be trusted and have to be reinterpreted by the Proprietary Gnostic Truth.
Qanon provides an excellent case study: Because the “liberal” media says Trump is bad, this is proof he is good.
“They” tell you smoking causes cancer? Of course, they do. Smoke as much as you want. 9/10 doctors in 1951 said it was healthy!
If unfiltered cigarettes were good enough for grandma, they’re good enough for me.
6. Knowledge Elitism
Ignorant and deluded people are bad because they know not what they do.
Because they’re incapable of real moral calculus, they can only do harm.
Thus, we, the secret elite who see through all the lies, are the only possible good people.
7. Mutual Contempt with Orthodoxy/Institutions
Both the “mainstream” and those with the correct secret knowledge look down on each other.
The contempt comes from their incompatible worldviews and frustration at the failures of communication.
They’re likely to accuse each other of a great many things with widely varying levels of validity.
8. Obsession with The Plot
OK, I’m just ripping this off Eco’s list. Whether it’s the Demiurge mistakenly thinking it’s the only god or Philip K Dick’s Empire imposing a false reality of modernity masking a 1st-century Roman empire, there’s some all-encompassing plot to fabricate reality.
Now, it’s true that gnostic conspiracies tend to be more metaphysical than fascist conspiracies, but that’s an awfully blurry line.
In either case, if the real/true knowledge is secret there needs to be an explanation as to why.
And a really easy one is that SOMEONE is keeping it hidden.
9. Obsession with Escape/Transcendance
If we’re trapped in a false reality (created by the news or something like Descartes's Evil Demon), then fighting back/escaping/transcending is the only way to get out.
In The Matrix, you can transcend by being rescued or by having an experience so intense that it overwhelms your control system as in the Animatrix.
If the media is lying to you, you need to find alternative sources of information.
If you’re stuck in 3D spacetime by alien soul-farmers, you need to rotate into hyperdimensional space to even have a chance to escape their clutches.
Whatever the explanation, getting away from THEM is necessary.
10. Things are Not As They Seem Contrarianism
OK, this one might need to be cut but it seems worth mentioning explicitly.
Gnosticism involves rejecting basic consensus, be it about the divinity of Christ or the definition of a trustworthy source.
I think a great many modern people get into gnostic frames of mine because of naive/unsophisticated contrarian thinking.
11. Claiming a Legacy of Oppression
Many contextualize their own marginalization by appealing to the history of earlier groups they have no direct connection to.
The ones I’ve seen most often are countercultural movements like the Cathars who were brutally suppressed by the inquisition.
12. Higher-Order Reality
The phenomenological world is just a reflection of some more essentially real world “above” us in some critical sense.
Sometimes it’s literally extra dimensions in the mathematic sense, sometimes it’s a higher world or variation of the world of forms or some other Platonic idea.
The main idea is that this place is a lie or an illusion. Which is a far broader idea than Gnosticism properly.
Hmm. At some point, I’m going to have to contrast Gnosticism and nondualism aren’t I?
13. Disagreement is Persecution, Persecution is Proof
Maybe the most dangerous of all of these aspects, when people interpret resistance to their ideas as an attack, they can push themselves anywhere.
There are many possible sources of resistance and most of them aren’t sinister. People don’t like unfamiliar ideas. And people trying to explain new ideas often have trouble expressing them clearly or persuasively.
But once you label any resistance to your ideas as proof that others are ignorant and hostile it’s easy to forget any kind of principle or reality-testing.
Where you go from there is as much luck as anything else.
This one is probably going to be higher up when I rewrite the list.
Maybe merge it with the higher reality one. I don’t know yet.
But Gnosticism’s rejection of reason as a primary tool and materialism as the primary field on which we can work is essential.
Whether there’s an idea of a soul or simply just some more essential fact than the physical body isn’t as important as the undervaluing of that body.
15. High Weirdness
Maybe last but not least, Gnosticism invites real weird bullshit to happen. Or maybe to interpret ordinary things in stranger terms.
I’m running out of writing steam right now so I’ll just link to myself for an explanation, lol.
I don’t know.
Having pumped out all this, I’m less sure this is a good way to frame Gnosticism. But I think it’s worth experimenting with.
I’ve been trying to finish this for a few hours now so I’m going to cut any more discussions short.
That said, I’d love any feedback here.
Trying to put a pin into a messy, reoccurring bit of weirdness is probably the most ambitious thing I’ve done in a while and I welcome any discussion.
Alright, see y’all on Sunday.
Great work. Have you thought about doing an essay on Baudrillard and the hyperreal?