Glory

peter-blake-and-to-show-you-im-not-proud-you-may-shake-hands-with-me[1]
Peter Blake-Alice through The Looking Glass 1972
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There-Lewis Carroll 1871

Alice’s encounter with the proud and doomed egghead philologist Humpty Dumpty, who is naturally sitting on a wall, is one of the most memorable scenes from her visit to the Looking Glass world. Humpty’s practise of assigning private meanings to words raises a whole series of puzzling and unsettling philosophical questions which have only gained in urgency over the last century with its ever greater linguistic and moral relativism.

Carroll, as a philosophical Nominalist (the belief that universal terms do not refer to objective existences, they are mere verbal utterances) and a writer of childrens nonsense books and comic poetry, affirms Humpty’s dictum that a word means just what you choose it to mean in his Symbolic Logic:

…I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book. “let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’, I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.

While private meaning is an acceptable, even a necessary principle in fiction and poetry, it is far more problematic in other areas. Surely politicians, journalists and judges, for example, are under a moral obligation to avoid weighting words with hidden meaning. Unfortunately many unscrupulous leaders has perverted language in this fashion and imposed the new meaning upon the people.  One of the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes is the power of propaganda to re-define reality; black will indeed become white, a fall from the heights is actually glory. Another technique is of bland technocratic euphemism, making even genocide seem merely a matter of bureaucratic and administrative procedure.

As we drift rudderless in this post-factual, post-truth age with its unprecedented information overload and polarities, we would do well to do the exact opposite of Humpty (after all, he lives on the other side of the mirror), and remember that words are our master, otherwise communication will eventually become impossible.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Gnosticism of Modernity

Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 by Max Ernst 1891-1976
Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 Max Ernst

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.
  • Subjectivitygnosis 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.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: Nobodaddy

The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794
The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794

The strange, visionary genius of the English poet and painter William Blake, one of the touchstones here and the feature of a number of posts including The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence and Tyger Tyger, is of such depth and complexity that it has invited any number of interpretations, including, somewhat improbably in my opinion, becoming a standard bearer for atheistic humanism. That Blake espoused an idiosyncratic, Hermetic form of humanism is beyond dispute, however Blake was deeply religious, albeit in a unorthodox and heretical fashion, and was vehemently opposed to the materialistic atheism that was beginning to emerge during the Enlightenment, a period where quantity began to supplant quality.

Suggestions for possible sources of Blake’s dense and highly personal mythology have ranged from Neo-Platonism to Buddhism and although Gnosticism is mentioned in the melange, it has been sidelined to a degree. However I believe that Gnosticism (of a libertine variety) and Hermeticism are the two major components that formed the basis of Blake’s belief system.

The most notable element of Gnosticism within Blake’s art and thought is the idea of the Demiurge. In a conversation with Crabb Robinson Blake noted concerning the poems of his fellow Romantic William Wordsworth, “The eloquent descriptions of Nature…were conclusive proof of Atheism, for whoever believes in nature, disbelieves in God – for Nature is the work of the devil.” In the magnificent poem Tyger Tyger, the creator of the Tyger is memorably presented as a craftsman and the original meaning of the word Demiurge in Greek is craftsman or artisan.

In Blake’s art and poetry, the Creator, the Ancient of Days, is named Urizen (either Your Reason and/or To Limit from the Greek) or Nobodaddy (Nobody’s Daddy and/ or possibly an anagrammatized riff on Abaddon, the angel of the bottomless pit). Urizen is the representation of abstraction and reason who creates the universe with architectural tools and ensnares humanity in a web of conventional law and morality.  He constrains us in the ‘prison of the senses five‘ and is quite clearly identified with the Old Testament Jehovah and is definitely Satanic. Hence Blake’s anti-clericalism, priests are literally devil worshippers. Prophets, on the other hand, can ignite the divine spark within us, which Blake identifies as Imagination. Imagination allows us to escape from this cage of matter created by Nobodaddy, the Father of Jealousy who farts and belches in darkness and obscurity while enjoying a spot of ‘hanging & drawing & quartering/ Every bit as well as war & slaughtering’.

I sincerely hope that in the preceding posts in the series that I have presented the basic outline of Gnostic thought, though admittedly in my own eccentric way, with many regrettable gaps, omissions and lacuna. So with this information in mind we can proceed to the 20th & 21st Centuries, a time when new discoveries into the origins of Gnosticism and the rapidly changing nature of reality itself saw a remarkable resurgence of the oldest of heresies.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Kabbalah

The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life

Although Gnosticism is, on the whole, treated as a phenomenon intimately connected with Christianity, there is evidence that it predates the birth of Jesus in certain heretical Jewish circles. This is unsurprising as Judaism would have been in contact with Babylonian/Persian religious traditions, as well as Hellenic Platonic speculation. Gnosticism certainly gained its first adherents from within the Hellenized Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities, however these would eventually become part of the sphere of Christianity (whether orthodox or heterodox).

Indeed it seems paradoxical, if not downright perverse, to make mention of a Judaic Gnosticism. Gnosticism with its Dualism, distant God in the pleroma, not to mention the Demiurge who creates matter and the habit of turning scripture on its head, seems to be entirely inimical to Judaism with its monotheism and a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. In many respects it is; yet within the mystical system of the Kabbalah there can be seen an attempt to combine strands of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with Judaism, albeit with a heavy qualified Dualism.

Theories abound regarding the origins of the Kabbalah. Common to the ancient and medieval world contemporary texts were stated to be of the greatest antiquary, all the better to suggest that it was of divine or prophetic origins. These claims are subject to dispute, though oral transmission undoubtedly has a role to play. Unfortunately such conjecture is unverifiable. What we can be sure of though is that the first great flowering of Kabbalistic literature was in Spain during the 12th Century and 13th Centuries. The political situation of the Iberian peninsula from the time of the Muslim conquest in the 8th Century to the reconquista of 1492 was a time of great flux, however for long period the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal enjoyed prosperity and freedom from persecution by tolerant Muslim and Christian rulers. It was also a time that the Kingdom of Al-Andalus was the centre of the learned world.

The Kabbalah is one of the world’s most complex and richest mystical systems (none-withstanding such recent bastardisations as The Kabbalah Centre) and I couldn’t possibly do its justice in a short post. Instead I will concentrate on a few points that appear to have a significant Gnostic component.

  • The two concepts of God: the essence of God is infinite, transcendent, unknowable, known as Ein Sof (No End).  In contrast there is God that manifests itself to humanity through a series of emanations.
  • The Sephirot-the ten emanations are attributes of God in which he reveals himself and sustains existence (see the header image showing the Sephirot as the Tree of Life).
  • Shekhinah-the feminine divine presence, comparable to Sophia in Gnosticism. Often the last of the Sephirot (nearest to matter), referred to as the daughter of God. Shekhinah dwells among the holy but is exiled from her own source. According to the great scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Shekhinah is ‘like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world’.
  • Sitra Achra-the Other Side, a demonic world of illusion
  • The Qliphot-the impure metaphorical shells surrounding holiness. To be found in the Sitra Achra, the Qliphot can lead to an self-awareness that is entirely illusory.
  • The radical notion (but only by some commentators) that evil is the result of an imbalance within the Sephirot.
  • The importance placed on the esoteric meaning of scripture  as opposed to their overt, exoteric meaning.

Life became increasingly difficult for the large Jewish population in Spain by the mid 14th century and when Ferdinard and Isabella completed the reconquista, they announced the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews. A majority left to Palestine, Italy, Poland and Germany with their books and knowledge. The Kabbalah become known to the learned of Europe who had recently re-discovered Plato and Hermes Tristemegistus (see my post As Above, So Below) and helped advance the Renaissance, though the philosopher-magus interpreted the system in a syncretic fashion, commonly known as Cabala to differentiate it from the Jewish Kabbalah. In Palestine the Kabbalah became of increasing importance within Judaism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

 

 

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).

Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.

Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;

  • Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
  • God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
  • Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
  • Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
  • To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
  • God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
  • In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
  • The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
  • Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis by disobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis through sin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).

The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.

By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.