By Alexander Maistrovoy
Recently I spoke with my friend (quite an erudite person) about total moral and spiritual degradation of West; about its corrupted values. Who is guilty in such a sad phenomenon? “Sure, it’s them… Mmm… Gnostics…”, – he said thoughtfully. “What?!”, – I was shocked. Why? “I read about it”, – he explained.
As it turned out he read popular Catholic author Robert R. Reilly who based on far-fetched conceptions of German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin managed to connect the unconnectable – Gnosticism and modern totalitarian murderous ideologies.
It wasn’t so difficult to explain my friend’s absurdity of these ideas. But his example proves how easy the ideas of Gnostics (and their followers in the face of Manichaeans and then Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars) were perverted in history by most disgusting ways and got popularity. It’s not a new phenomenon of course.
…In the time of troubles, at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, interest in Gnosticism suddenly reappeared in the form of occult-mystic practices and acquired an extraordinary popularity in the circles of decadent and exalted intellectuals. However, this interest bore no relation to true Gnosticism. This was the mixture of mind games, fascination with mysticism, and gravitation towards thrills that were passed off as pursuance of knowledge.
All kinds of hypotheses arose and multiplied about the secret succession between the Gnostics via Cathars with the Masons and the Knights Templar, about the secret connection between the Gnostics and the mysterious ‘Holy Grail’, about the Cathars as bearers of ‘sacral knowledge’ of the ancient Celts. There appeared new societies like the Universal White Brotherhood founded by Peter Deunov with his meditations, yoga, and dedication to the Himalayan babaji (sādhu in Hinduism).
There appeared mystics and pseudo-mystics professing succession from Gnostics, the lovers of esoteric and the supernatural, magicians and mystificators who used Gnostic symbols and names with extraordinary ease but, in reality, emasculated the idea itself and never even took interest in it. Some of them obviously knew nothing about Gnosticism or were indifferent to it. This did not stop their followers from seeking and finding in their theories the ‘Gnostic hermeticism’ of which there were no traces. Helena Blavatsky with her Theosophical Society, wrote books, Ancient Wisdom, The Secret Doctrine, and Isis Unveiled. Black magician and satanist Aleister Crowley wrote The Book of the Law and The Thoth Tarot and was the creator of the sect Ordo Templi Orientis. He called himself the Beast 666, and he called his daughter Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith. Rene Guenon consequently converted to Islam and developed a school of religious philosophy called the Primordial Tradition, a crazy and fancy eclectic mix of Daoism, Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, symbolism, and Sufism. All these people, who remarkably were associated with Gnosticism, bear the same relation to Gnostics as the Earl Cagliostro or Prince Borneo.
However, using Gnostic terms and symbols to create the veil of mystery, they, at any rate, did not declare themselves the followers of this teaching. The same cannot be said about the spiritualist Jules Doinel—the Bishop of Montsegur and primate of the Albigeois, Ennoia’s spiritual fiancé, Valentine’s incarnation, Tau Valentin II, the Bishop Ales and Mirepoix or about Jean Bricaud—Tau Jean II and Patriarch of the l’Église Gnostique Universelle.
It’s hard to say what prevailed here: spiritual quest, pretence, affectation, narcissism, a fashionable awe of miracles and the occult, self-deceit, or simply copying. Possibly a bit of everything. But not all of these séances with visions, incarnations, Sophia’s revelations, engagements to ennoia were scanty and ridiculous parodies of Gnosticism as a well-constructed and deep philosophical-religious system.
Carl Jung, without doubt, took a keen interest in Gnosticism, and his treatise under a grandiloquent and pretentious name ‘Septem Sermones ad Mortuos’ described by him as ‘Seven Sermons to the Dead, written by Basilides of Alexandria, the city where East and West meet’ is the proof of this.
However, he was wrapped up in the world of ‘secret knowledge’, alchemy, myths, occult symbols of antiquity and the Middle Ages just in the same way. All this intricately coexisted in his brain, as well as in the brains of many of his famous contemporaries, including Martin Heidegger, with abominable quasi-scientific ideologies, such as the race theory. In his journal, he printed the extracts from Mein Kampf and supported Nazis. This was a strange and garish mixture of occultism, rationalism inherent in absolute irrationalism, and intellectualism with a mystical underpinning and had nothing in common with Gnosticism as a religious philosophy with its own interpretation of the divine world, nature of evil, and man as a hostage of a ruthless game of cosmic forces. Gnostic symbolism is no more than a shiny spangle on his intricate psychological constructions meant to give appeal and extend a thread from his own explorations to the ‘secrets of the ancient’.
We also observe the attempt to manipulate Gnostic teachings—absurd, contrived, and at times even disgusting. An example of this is the ‘investigation’ of Nazi archaeologist Otto Rahn employed by Himmler who maintained that the Cathars were the bearers of the ‘sacral knowledge’ of ancient Celts that had been squashed by Judaism and Christianity. Another example was the linking of Gnosticism with modern ideologies—communism and fascism—by the American philosopher of Austrian origin Eric Voegelin.
There is no doubt that, when intricate intellect and an artificial hoard are at work, anything can be linked to anything. One can maintain that communism rests upon the ancient Egyptian cults, and as an example show the embalmed Lenin in the mausoleum. One can attempt to prove that Northern Europe is the ancestral homeland of ‘Aryans‘, that the primitive tribes of Africa and Australia believed in one God, and that the ancient Maya civilization was the part of Atlantis that was connected to the Middle East. But this bears no relation to either religion or history.
It is obvious that Gnosticism in any of its versions never aspired to establish ‘heaven on earth’ as the authors of modern collective ideologies tried to do. On the contrary, peace and harmony were acquired by a Gnostic through an internal escape from the palaver of material existence to an extreme individualization. Knowledge of a true, ultra-mundane deity and search for pneuma in the soul were of utmost importance. The purpose of a Gnostic was not to change this world, and least of all at the expense of mass destruction and humiliation of his own kind, but to break through the boundaries of despicable flesh and find the salvation in pleuroma. Communism, Nazism, a present-day postmodernism and popular so-called “progressive” theories are all ugly and reduced to absurd derivatives of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment about the liberation of humankind through relieving people of social manacles and endowing them with material goods on the one hand, and the cult of national state on the other. The Gnostic ideal raising humanity over the ‘hitches’ of the material world—mercantilism, race, genders or social justice—does not have anything in common with these primitive theories.
These manipulations impel us to settle upon another principal moment before looking at the philosophy of Gnosticism from the heights of more modern times: humanism and rationalism laid down in the dualistic movements from Gnostic’s and Mani’s followers to the Cathars.
Equal in the Face of Evil
The Gnostic systems that existed throughout the centuries primarily differed in their extraordinarily careful, even touching, compassion for living life—not to kill a living being, not to cause pain to animals, and all the more not to torture or hurt one’s nearest and dearest. These are all characteristics of the Manicheans and the Paulicians, the Bogomils and the Albigensians (Cathars). The killing of animals and birds was the gravest sin for the Albigensians, as before them the squashing of insects had been for the Manicheans, and knowing this, to recognize ‘the heretic’, the Inquisition investigators would demand that suspects wring the necks of chickens. The Cathars had no leniency for the crimes or payoffs such as the indulgence; the consequence of murder, mutilation, and insult was banishment from community.
The second factor is a unique tolerance that was so unusual, not only for the Middle Ages but for human history in general. In these movements, we almost never encounter male chauvinism, so typical of the monotheistic religions. Let’s remember Marcion who allowed women to perform a christening rite on an equal basis with men, and the Bogomils’ women preachers. The Cathars actually endowed women with full equality, allowing them to occupy the highest positions in the hierarchy of the Albigensians—‘the perfect’ (perfects).
The same attitude applied to the representatives of religious minorities such as Catholics and Jews. Long before the beginning of the era of freedom and enlightenment, in Languedoc, Lombardy, and Toulouse, the Cathars established peace and an atmosphere of lenient tolerance for their spiritual opponents. The Church put yellow crosses on the Cathars and yellow stars on the Jews, having anticipated the idea of selection. They burned heretics in fires, tortured, banished, and demonized all who did not share their beliefs. During their rule, the Albigensians did not create anything like the Inquisition or force anyone to adopt their beliefs; neither did they hound and humiliate those outside their own communities or agree to the bashing of the dregs of society. The subconscious fear of strangers was alien to them because a stranger was no more than the bearer of divine spirit in a slightly different and maybe uncustomary shell than the one they wore themselves. Attachment to life with impending doom, pointless circumambulation, cold void, and worthlessness united in their eyes all people, irrespective of what they thought and believed in.
While in all European states and dukedoms the Jews remained for centuries the people of second-rate quality, and worse yet, the devil’s helpers and the accursed nation, in the lands of the Cathars they were equal among all. In his book A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, the historian Henry Charles Lea discusses the freedoms that were used by ‘the sons of Moses’ in the South of France, unprecedented in Europe not only in the twelfth century, but in all the forthcoming ones, including the Enlightenment. The Jews were allowed to own land allotments; they were free to choose any profession, including public service; they held honorary posts; and most importantly, they were not perceived as fundamentally flawed, vicious people doomed to suffering as the Church dogma kept maintaining. ‘Southern France was almost the only stronghold of religious tolerance as … the very idea of religious persecutions was completely alien for the Cathars,’ Lea wrote.
This is to be expected. What does it matter in which body a soul resides if the human body is ‘the dungeon of evil’ by definition? Can there be an advantage of one torture chamber over another, one dirty vessel over another? In any case, these vessels will be broken, and the origin of torment—‘the Creator’s closet’—destroyed.
What does it matter about people’s delusions if the people are no more than delusions themselves? What does it matter how they believe in their God and what prayers they offer up to him if this God is a fallen angel, the origin of chaos, temptation, and suffering? Can human beings who know the true price of this frail world blame the miserable in their suffering and limitations?
The third and no-less-significant point was that the dualists were a lot more rational than their enemies. They rejected miracles, omens, resurrection of the dead, prejudices, superstitious beliefs, and saints. They did not believe in sacrament or the worship of graves and icons. For them the conversations about ‘the devil’s scheming’, incubi, and succubae were as absurd as the world itself ultimately was the devil’s spawn. The Cathars could not use the expression ‘it’s the devil’s work’ because, since all physical and material nature was derived from the devil as it is, humankind should have realized this bitter truth. Unlike other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they did not or could not believe that the Creator intervened in the business of His creations every minute, punishing, helping, blessing, warning, comforting, and being otherwise involved. The very thought that the prayer containing a plea to stop a drought would touch the Almighty and impel Him to pour rain on the ground was laughable for them. The one who created hell and gave rise to the abyss under the name of the material world could not feel any compassion for His victims by definition. And His interference itself into the business of humans was devoid of any meaning. The residence of evil was created so intricately and carefully that it did not require the constant presence of the Creator.
Jean Duvernoy, the most influential modern researcher into the Cathars’ history, brings as an example the sermon of the Cathar perfect Pierre Authie. Typical for the Albigensians (Cathars), it was mentioned in the records of the Bishop of Pamiers Jacques Fournier’s Inquisition. Pierre Authie spoke disingenuously of the naive concepts of Christians and ‘the care of Holy Father’: ‘It was not God who gave you a good harvest but the fertilization and watering of the ground,’ he wrote. ‘Why are you lying prostrate before this statue? Did you forget that it was Man who took a piece of wood and carved it with the help of iron tools?’ he said in an attempt to bring pious Catholics to reason.
Finally, the last point: The adherents of Gnostic movements understood human nature a lot better than other Christians did. Unlike Catholics, the Bogomils and the Cathars did not take the monastic vows in their youth; neither did they give their children away to monasteries because they realized that sexual desire in the young years is so powerful that it suppresses all spiritual aspirations and, if not realized, can morph into the most despicable perversions. They would practice abstinence only when mature in age, after experiencing the joy of making love and creating families.
But the main factor differentiating the world of Gnostics from that of their neighbours was that the dualism in the perception of the world led not to the spiritual dissension, but to harmony—individual and, subsequently, social. People felt a part of the brotherhood-sisterhood of the chosen without the division into religion, appearance, sex, race, and origin. People were hostages among other hostages of the triumphant evil, neither worse nor better than the rest. This combination—aversion to the world and concurrent quiet, unrevealed delight coming from belonging to the higher pure origin—gave rise to intense joy, sombre composure, contempt for life, and anticipation of speedy parting with ‘the worn shell’ of a body.
The Cathars, like other Gnostics before them, did not leave the world as monks. They remained secular, not to improve the world, like Francis of Assisi, but to evoke it from their hearts. Like the bee—their symbol—they gathered bitter honey of knowledge from the inflorescences of the spirit growing from the depths of rotting matter.
The dust of history covered Gnosticism, and the sparkles of pseudo-mysticism gave it a grotesque and false taint. However, Gnosticism forever remained the religious philosophy that dared to explain God and the world, however pessimistic and even ominous the explanation.
Author of “Gnosticism through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or between God and the Creator” Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.