The Classic Gnostics being “world-haters” was a common polemic dispensed by their many foes throughout history. The label has been so successful that many modern Gnostics manufacture apologetics placing the Gnostics on some sort of eco-friendly pedestal. But as always, enemies and advocates miss the subtleties of the Gnostic ethos, which like many of their beliefs puts them in a unique class.
Simply put and at its core, the Gnostic worldview is not concerned on whether or not the universe is evil. This is demonstrable by the varying stances of Gnostic-minded groups in early Christian times: The Sethians recoiled at most forms of matter; the Valentinians saw only human perception as flawed, befuddled by a psychic fog originating in some cosmic error, and the true nature of the cosmos was mostly unknown to mortals (as attested in The Gospel of Truth); the Cult of Basilides and the Hermetics held that the universe was benign, or at least necessary for any salvation; and the Manichaeans contended that the material world was an almost perfect balance of divinity and spiritual wickedness.
In all these diverging positions there was agreement in one aspect only: material reality was ultimately a secondary concern to a higher, more authentic reality—and all souls originated and belonged to this plane of being.
This attitude is exemplified in the film, The Matrix, an obvious Gnostic narrative. Within the Matrix, there were those who lived well, those who suffered because of various iniquities, and a majority who were essentially neutral towards their surroundings (just like our world). However and in the end, the Matrix was just a counterfeit construct—without cosmic fairness or purified divinity—and beyond this digital Samsara could be found a genuine existence. Perhaps this genuine existence was not exactly good or perfect, but at least it was valid. And in the final movie of the series, Neo actually becomes an entity of light-consciousness, able to travel between the two realities before final transcendence.
To put in another way, ignorance was the greatest of sins in most Gnostic schools of thought, but the second was arguably being overly-attached (even overly-concerned) with any system of reality that was temporal or flawed. On a cursory glance of Gnostic texts, one can see the warning against becoming markedly involved with understanding the essence of any sensory universe:
It is necessary to rise in this flesh, since everything exists in it… Fear not the flesh nor love it. If you fear it, it will gain mastery over you. If you love it, it will swallow and paralyze you. (The Gospel of Philip)
Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy. (The Gospel of Thomas)
This is the Only One. This is he from whom the Monad came, like a ship laden with all good things, or like a city filled with every race of man and every king`s image. (Untitled in The Bruce Codex).
It is within Unity that each one will attain himself; within knowledge, he will purify himself from multiplicity into Unity, consuming matter within himself like fire, and darkness by light, death by life. (The Gospel of Truth).
In my book, Voices of Gnosticism, Stevan Davies furthermore explains that to many Gnostics “it’s somewhat questionable as to whether this world exists at all.” In other words, focusing on the nature of what is finite was something the Classic Gnostics gave less attention to than the vast realms of infinity.
All of this does not mean the Gnostics were neutral regarding the notion of compassion. In my article, Do Gnostics Believe in Charity and Good Works? I go in depth on how Gnostic sensibility embraces the assistance of the downtrodden and helpless. The suffering of all manner of sentient life was extremely real to those who claimed having Gnosis.
But in the end, returning to a celestial home was the main goal of the spirituality awakened (and also to lead the way to those still asleep). Inquiry of all kind was promoted by Classic Gnostics, but too much focus on the prison that is the World of Forms—whether the bars be painted in gold or rust—was likely discouraged. And this quote from The Matrix brings even more context to this unusual sensibility:
Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.