Before progressing further with the study of Gnostic influences in the 20th and 21st Century, we must first consider what elements of a heresy formulated in the 1st Century AD hold relevance today, two millennia later, in an increasingly secular world with an unprecedentedly advanced technology. Obviously a Gnosticism divorced from its ancient and medieval religious milieu is going to be markedly different from the original, indeed on a number of occasions is it avowedly atheist and secular, however this adaptability is a sign of its continued power to haunt the imagination.
- Paranoia-the worldview of Gnosticism is deliriously paranoid. The whole universe is a vast cosmic conspiracy concocted by a deluded and evil Demiurge, who employs archons to make sure we keep in line and don’t realise the horrific truth. Through gnosis you could achieve awareness that you were trapped inside an immense prison and begin the escape to our true home. Unfortunately the history of the Gnostics suggests that their paranoia was to a certain extent justified, as they were definitely persecuted and were frequently burned at the stake. One of the defining characteristics of the 20th Century onward has been the ever escalating paranoia, though it is the state and ever-encroaching technologies that are the main cause of the proliferating conspiracy theories. However who could seriously doubt that the power structures are out to get us? Paranoia makes sense, though the sense it makes is completely paranoid.
- Pessimism-the idea that the material world and realm of the senses is corrupt, faulty and inherently, intrinsically evil is a rare case of religious and philosophical pessimism, as is the antinatalism adopted by the majority of Gnostic sects, both ascetic and libertine. It isn’t until Schopenhauer (though a case could be made for Marquis De Sade with his eternal, infernal universe ruled over by a malevolent Nature) that such views found a place within mainstream philosophy. Now such views can be found on a network TV series such as True Detective.
- Subjectivity–gnosis could only be found within, not from objective fact or through the mediation of an organisation such as the Church. It was personal, individual and subjective. Needless to say, ever since Kierkegaard posited his radical subjectivity, objective reality has retreated to such an extent that nobody has any clue as to whether anything actually exists outside of the confides of their own minds anymore.
- Cosmic Vision-Gnosticism with its bewildering array of emanations, aeons, syzygies and archons is very cosmically trippy and great source of material for Science Fiction, with a few updates of course. Angels and Demiurges cast as advanced alien species or computer systems.
- The Flight from Reason-The Roman Empire was the civilised world at the time. Outside of its borders lay only savages and barbarians who wanted to be Romans anyway. It was pragmatic, bureaucratic, reasonable and, one suspects, a little soul-destroying. People (on the whole) only paid lip service to the official state religion. The state may have ensured that you didn’t die of hunger, but for what purpose? Reason has only so many answers and even then we can stand only so much reason. Hence the flight from reason to embrace an exhilarating, total vision. A vision that dispels all doubt and means you just know. On this point I think the parallels are clear and apparent without any further elaboration on my part.
With all these factors in mind we can advance, with much fear and trembling, further into the Gnosticism of Modernity, which will form the second half of the series.