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“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

The ‘mystic psychology’ of Gnosticism

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This is something of a final piece for my Arts Degree. Also, a little more epic than usual. It not only concerns early Christianity and the late Roman world, but how we might go about understanding, interpreting and reconstructing religion.

Gnosticism is often called a more ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ religion by modern thinkers. Comparing Gnosticism to other religious systems, explore how this is or isn’t an appropriate designation.


A collection of soteriological religious ideas which circulated throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries C.E. is generally known today as ‘Gnosticism’. It is often colloquially considered by modern thinkers as a more ‘mystic’ or ‘psychological’ religion in comparison to other religious and philosophical belief systems of its time. I shall in this essay explore why this might be, comparing the Gnostic religion to Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. My contention is that most religious systems could be considered as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’, but that Gnosticism has been so characterized mainly as a result of modern misunderstandings of religious thinking.

A number of modern thinkers have linked Gnosticism with mysticism, or detected its “psychological implications.”[1] The extant texts are referred to by Needleman as “the subconscious teachings of Christianity;”[2] Leloup calls them the “unconscious gospels.”[3] Psychologists of last century with something of a mystic reputation are sometimes referred to as “modern Gnostics.”[4] Such associations might naturally centre around a religion preoccupied with knowledge of an elusive or secret kind – ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the word for ‘knowledge’ in ancient Greek.[5] I will employ the word ‘psychological’ in this essay in a very casual sense: ‘apparently reflecting mental functions and behaviour, particularly with a therapeutic effect’. As I shall detail shortly, despite modern conceptions about religion, most religions could be considered highly ‘psychological’ as they could be said to have some therapeutic aspect, if only in that they recommend a perspective on existence and a way of living, and that they intrinsically involve highly complex interrelations of thought and feeling functions, most of which operate unconsciously or at least indistinctly. The casual conception of ‘mysticism’ reflects this ‘psychological’ underpinning of religion – the word is used to refer to a religious mindset that is contemplative or self-surrendering, with a rejection of doctrine, intellect or even moral values. While both terms could fairly apply to Gnosticism, I shall argue shortly that they could very well apply to virtually all truly religious experience.

Understanding Gnosticism

There are two principal problems we encounter in attempting to construct a meaningful understanding of the Gnostic religion: the general difficulty of properly comprehending how religion operates psychologically, and the problem of understanding the everyday culture and thinking styles of people living nearly 2000 years ago. Even just linguistically, for example, a bewildering array of modern concepts cannot have meant exactly what we mean by them today – concepts such as ‘rational knowledge’, ‘empirical evidence’, and ‘Christianity’. This stands to reason, as orthodox Christianity and western science, as we understand them today, developed mostly after the period of the Gnostics, taking centuries to thresh out their respective philosophical particulars. Similarly, the term ‘Gnosticism’ itself was never used by the ancients. It was coined in the 17th century C.E.[6] to refer to an apparent heretical movement among the early Christians and consequently has a pejorative ring to it.[7] Yet the word gnosis does play a role in the extant Gnostic texts to an extent unusual in its time.[8] Gnosis is generally translated as ‘knowledge’,[9] but in English ‘knowledge’ has many different meanings. The term ‘philosophy’ is associated with the ancient Greek word for ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge’. This suggests Gnostic gnosis is something quite different from what we now call ‘rationalistic knowledge’. Joseph Campbell associates gnosis with an ineffable knowledge “transcending that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought”.[10] Kurt Rudolph calls it a “liberating and redeeming” knowledge.[11] All of this suggests that we will struggle to describe Gnosticism with precision because it is both ancient and, fundamentally, ineffable, like much that is emotional or religious.[12]

This last point is often overlooked by scholars, particularly when it comes to seeking ‘definitions’ for cultural-religious ideas. A perfect example of this is the scholarly muddle around ‘defining’ Gnosticism. The debate centres around how to classify a fundamentally ancient and ineffable religion using a variety of discrete, precise terminologies. Ismo Dunderberg, for example, denies that ‘Gnosticism’ is a particularly useful or meaningful designation,[13] mainly because he does not see ‘the Gnostics’ as forming a unified group. He proceeds to study the fragments of Valentinus pragmatically, as representing a particular individual’s mainly moral and philosophic teachings. But most mythologies do not form unified, clearly demarcated units[14] – these are myths, not social or political organizations with a discrete charter. I see no need for mythological ‘definitions’ at all; such would be purely casual, approximate, and impressionistic[15] in the area of cultural-religious ideas in general.[16] Such ‘definitions’ say more about viewpoints of modern scholarship than about the ancients’ beliefs.[17]

How might we understand religion?

I will, briefly, support my own mythic interpretative theory by utilizing the more appropriately impressionistic myth theories of Ernst Cassirer,[18] Clifford Geertz,[19] and others. Cassirer’s theory concerns the changes to mythic thinking over time. He proposes that the principle difference between modern and ancient thinking was not that the ancients did not have a basic understanding of what we call practical matters or rationality, for example, but that these understandings were expressed in a manner more fundamentally fused (today we would say confused) with areas of thought which we would call impractical, superstitious, or irrational.[20] For example, hunter-gatherer thinking would most likely have fused into one mindset the categories of thought we would today compartmentalize and distinguish as ethics, metaphysics, personal psychology, politics, aesthetics, opinion, superstition, philosophy, practical economics, etc.[21] Of course, the Romans would not have thought in as much of an extremely ‘fused’ manner as hunter-gatherer people; Cassirer suggests that with the development of what we call civilization (particularly early science and rationality) more of these categories of thought began to be consciously distinguished and conceptualized more discretely.

What this means is that we can and should, if only for convenience’ sake, use ‘discrete’ modern terms to refer to ancient thought, provided that we remain wary that the historical reality was more blurred, mixed, and ‘fused’, such that, for example, discrete but superficially similar thought processes can be equated and spoken of, even experienced, as one. In fact, Cassirer’s whole thesis is that this ancient, ‘fused’ way of thinking is actually the default mode of mythological thought and experience.[22] It is this less distinguished, ‘fused’ thinking which we are likely to see reflected in written records such as the Gnostic texts and which leads us to consider all religions, not just Gnosticism, as intrinsically ‘psychological’, even ‘mystic’.[23] This is one reason why religions cannot be explicated using ‘empirical’ or ‘systematic’ methods – both these thinking processes value discreteness and physicality to an extent, I argue, which the cultural-mythological subject matter does not warrant.[24]

Clifford Geertz[25] further explains the structure of myth in terms of a two-way interaction between a cultural ethos and a mythic worldview. Certain popular and meaningful cultural beliefs and ideas make up the components of a metaphysics or meta-narrative which in turn validates the component beliefs and ideas through ordering them into a meaningful structure. I argue, on the basis of Geertz’s theory, that it is the mythic worldview which crystallizes and guides the thinking process in relation to religious thought and experience. It is a kind of dynamic formula not of intellect, ethics, or theology, but of action.[26] The worldview motivates the ‘religious mission’.[27] However, we must remain aware that an individual deeply involved[28] in such a worldview is generally not consciously aware of its psychological functioning because he or she is dealing with a heavily ‘fused’ mode of thinking. The worldview and ethos are necessarily vague and approximate values, however their interrelation is of prime importance.[29] A slight alteration in ethos is unlikely to affect the worldview, but a large alteration can render the structuring device of the worldview ineffectual (i.e. less powerful, less inspiring) or even totally obsolete (in which case the religion becomes meaningless, ‘deceptive’ (i.e. uninspiring), or a curious folk story). The difficulty in terms of historical analysis of worldview and ethos is that neither of these is explicitly stated or directly represented in written texts or even verbal expression. These are only approximate values to begin with, that only appear in very impressionistic and generalised ways. Accordingly, a mythic worldview cannot be ‘defined’ but only impressionistically outlined and for the purposes of study.[30]

Finally, the numinous feeling that pervades myth[31] is, I argue, another component in the ‘fusing’ of mythic thought, not only in the sense that an emotional aspect is included along with the other indistinct mental elements, but the very process of ‘fused’ mythological thinking – particularly the sense of a mythic worldview crystallizing all the myriad parts of the cultural ethos and ordering these meaningfully – probably engenders a sense of culminating awe, of ‘transcendent-immanent horror-joy’.[32]

What is Gnosticism?

Since a mythic worldview is a complex metaphysics or meta-narrative, to explore the Gnostic worldview[33] I will turn primarily to Gnostic accounts of creation and cosmology as revealed in the texts usually titled, On the Origin of the World (OW) and The Secret Book of John (SBJ).[34] Here we read that, after the creation of the world of the highest gods by the ultimate god-principle known as ‘the One’ (OW 97-9; SBJ 2-9), an immortal known as Barbelo in SBJ, Pistis-Sophia (literally ‘Faith-Wisdom’) in OW, independently creates a being without the consent of the One from a superfluous substance referred to as shadow, chaos, darkness, envy, deficiency, abortion, and matter (OW 100; SBJ 9-10). This new being, said to be a “thing with no spirit … made into a likeness of the divine” (OW 100), is the first archon (‘ruler’), known as the Demiurge, identified with the creator god from the Torah or Old Testament. The Demiurge proceeds to shape matter into the world roughly as per Genesis chapter 1, creating lesser rulers, kings, and powers, including those of the planets of the ancient zodiac (OW 100-3; SBJ 10-3). The Demiurge then commits a great sin: he proclaims, “‘I am God, and there is no other but me’” (OM 103). In his arrogance, or ignorance, the Demiurge does not know of the One, the higher, more perfect god which came before him. Barbelo/Pistis and the One then reveal a glorious androgynous man made of light to expose the lie of the Demiurge, but this only encourages the Demiurge to create man, as it were, in the man of light’s image (OM 103, 107-8, 112-3; SBJ 14-5). The Demiurge and his powers (including the planets) are able to create bodily aspects of the first human but such is only able to come fully to life with the secret intervention of ‘the Mother’/Sophia, who essentially imprisons a spark of enlightened Insight (gnosis) within man (OM 114-5; SBJ 19-21). The end of the tale is similar to Genesis 2. The first man appears in the garden of Paradise, is divided: Adam becomes male and Eve female – Eve secretly embodies an earthly version of the goddess/Sophia – and, after eating from the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden by a jealous Demiurge (OM 118-21; SBJ 21-3).

From this creation story, we discern the mythic worldview of the Gnostics. The world, including man, as in orthodox Christianity, is ‘fallen’ – evil, deluded, ignorant, imperfect – but it is not the Biblical God who is to bring about salvation. A redeemer figure – not always[35] but often Jesus Christ, son of the true, highest god, of the One – descends and re-ascends from on high to bring knowledge – insight, gnosis – of the true light, perfection, wholeness. This is the central worldview of Gnosticism.[36] The aim of the Gnostic was, through whatever means,[37] to become aware of the divine spark within, and thereby to gain some sort of spiritual freedom or release from the corrupt world of the Demiurge. To reiterate, this is not a precise, always-stated principle or ‘doctrine’ of Gnosticism, but an approximation of a common conceptualization (the worldview) which functioned as the motivator for the driving feeling and spirit of this ancient religion.

As Dunderberg observes,[38] many Gnostic texts do not even mention the Demiurge, the fallen world, even the One, but I argue that something like this basic conception of ‘salvation from corruption’ inspires the ethical teaching or abstract transcendental poetry of the Gnostic texts. Similarly, this general worldview can be expressed in texts which differ or contradict each other on the level of specific detail. My exposition of the Gnostic cosmology above has ironed out much of the differing detail in the two texts – not only regarding names used, but the order of events is different, and there are some seemingly radical differences of interpretation. For example, in OM, the serpent in the garden and the tree of knowledge itself are embodiments of or emissaries from the life-giving Pistis-Sophia; whereas, in SBJ, they represent the corrupting powers of the Demiurge – the fruit of the tree brings not gnosis but a poison which instills desire, empty pleasure, and sexuality (which is seen as perverse and corrupting). These differences have been largely disregarded for two reasons. Firstly, individual believers naturally do not express similar ideas in exactly the same way. This is especially the case in a non-doctrinal religion where there is no authoritative text to be consulted like a prescriptive law book. Hence the differences are not necessarily significant. Secondly, most importantly, the differing details do not affect the fundamental worldview. In OM, disobedience in the garden is a disobedience of the ignorant Demiurge only. In SBJ, the Demiurge urges them away from the evil tree to make it seem more attractive to them. Either way, the world creator is an evil menace, endeavouring to keep humanity away from gnosis and the light. This disparity and variety of expression suggests not imprecision (since, again, there is no real precision in ‘fused’ religious conception), but a mytho-poetic grasping for expression of an ineffable ‘psychological’ truth.

Gnosticism compared to Neoplatonism

Like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism also exhibits a propensity for diverse forms. Each philosopher in the tradition from Plotinus to Proclus knowingly articulates his ideas in differing ways.[39] However, once again, an encompassing mythic worldview suffuses all texts in the tradition, otherwise we probably would not recognize them as exemplifying ‘Neoplatonism’. In comparison to Gnosticism, the Neoplatonic religion expresses itself in what we might call transcendental philosophy rather than narrative myth-making. In this respect, its worldview is less of a meta-narrative and more of a metaphysics. The universe is pictured largely according to the Greco-Roman tradition[40] with Earth pictured at the centre of 7 or 8 rotating concentric spheres, each home to a ‘planet’[41] or the ‘fixed stars’. Neoplatonism conceives all of this originating and remaining within the perfect, uniting, infinite, self-sufficient, transcendent-yet-immanent power of the One, which is sometimes anthropomorphized but is, like the entirety of Neoplatonism, mostly conceived of in extremely abstract terms. From the One emanates the archetypes or ‘intelligible forms’ which function rather like blueprints for the shaping of inert matter into the material and living world. Naturally, all of this differs slightly in organization, degree, names and expression depending on which Neoplatonic philosopher you are reading (or, indeed, which section of the same philosopher).[42]

The principal difference between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in terms of mythic worldview – which, of course, changes everything – is that the world is not considered necessarily evil, ‘fallen’, corrupt, deluded, or ignorant. Plotinus insists that the material world, while less ‘real’ than that of the immortal Soul or the One, is truly beautiful, perfect, and necessary to existence.[43] “[W]ill there be any so dull-witted and unresponsive,” he asks, “in seeing all the varied beauty in the world of sense, … that he will not stand in awe of it?” (Plotinus Enneads II 9.xvi). Without matter, he argues, “all would lie buried in [the One], without Form” (Plotinus, Enneads IV Evil is not a separate principle or power but simply a result of a world which is not adequately ‘in form’; that is, not properly reflecting the perfect archetypes which herald from the One. However, the similarities between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are great, and not only in respect to diversity of expression and structural conception of the universe. Neoplatonism holds that humans are part-matter and part-incorporeal, immortal soul. This soul is said to descend and ascend through the spheres at birth and death respectively. The similarity here to the Gnostic ‘insight’ or ‘spark’ imprisoned in the corrupt flesh of body is striking.

Diversity of form, coupled with its expression in the form of philosophy rather than mythic narrative, leaves us with a sense that Neoplatonism is also ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’. The terminology used by Plotinus refers directly to metaphysical principles which are blatantly words indicating psychological states: the powers of ‘Intellect’, ‘Desire’, ‘Soul’, ‘Goodness’, for example. This is also the case in Gnosticism of course, but such forces are generally personified: Pistis-Sophia (‘Faith-Wisdom’) is more clearly conceived as a goddess-figure, for example. Plotinus is apparently describing a metaphysics, not a psychology, yet virtually all his proofs and arguments rely on comparisons to psychological experience in some way. For example, he argues using metaphors that only make sense when psychologically conceived: the development of matter is “like the unfolding of a seed” (Enneads IV These metaphors seem to be all the proof required – he does not need to argue why it should be like the unfolding of a seed; the metaphorical comparison itself seems to be evidence that satisfies intuitively, that is, ‘psychologically’.[44] Furthermore, “the sight of beauty … can bear a man up to the higher reality” (Enneads II 9.xvi) surely means that such a man is not literally borne to a physically higher or otherwise displaced location, but is metaphorically borne to a ‘higher’ psychological state of mind. Unfortunately, the metaphorical conception is probably only perceived as more correct from our modern standpoint. Plotinus almost certainly equates the two, i.e. that psychological state (experienced rather than conceptualized) is the soul momentarily becoming physically displaced to a higher reality. Properly considered, Gnosticism seems less ‘psychological’ in comparison to Neoplatonic philosophy, yet modern psychologists are not considered by some thinkers as ‘modern Neoplatonists’[45] – it is the Gnostics that are represented as ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’. This still needs to be explained.

Gnosticism versus orthodox Christianity

In turning to orthodox Christianity, we must be careful to consider this in context. As far as we know there was no ‘orthodox’ Christianity before the 4th century C.E. when Theodosius I made it the Roman Empire’s sole authorized religion. I hope my earlier discussion of the typical forms of religious thought has shown that the idea of ‘authorizing’ a religion is a highly artificial almost incongruous thing to do.[46] It is worth bearing in mind that even after the declaration of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., the establishing of one dogmatic Christian creed took centuries to achieve, and it is arguable that such an undertaking had more to do with political repression than religious expression.[47]

We might express the fundamental orthodox Christian worldview as: The world including man is ‘fallen’; it is obedience to the moral law of the Biblical God, through the forgiving Grace and sacrament of his son Jesus Christ, that will lead the individual to ‘salvation’. This worldview sounds, on the face of it, very like the Gnostic in the sense that both can be reduced to a less specific and indiscrete emotional striving after ‘salvation from corruption’. We might explore the differences between the orthodox Christian and Gnostic religions through the critical words of those contemporaries of the Gnostics who later came to be known as the Church Fathers, but, upon reflection, there is very little criticism here pertaining to mythic worldview. This is because when two religious sects essentially hold the same or very similar worldviews, criticism can only occur on the level of ethos, that is, on the level of particular expression, social practice, ethical systemization or even political affiliation. These may be component elements which make up part of the ‘fused’ mythic worldview, but on their own they are perceived by the religious believer as either inessential, extrinsic or differently inflected. The Church Fathers’ fundamental criticisms are not specific to Christianity or Gnosticism but might be applied by an outsider to any religion he or she wishes to repudiate. These criticisms differ in detail of course but include accusations of corrupt origins, of inconsistency or incoherence, and of immoral practices.[48] All religions can be considered as dubious in this way due to the ‘fused’ nature of mythic conception.

The mode of religious expression can also be used to make a superficial distinction between traditions. We have already seen how Neoplatonism appears far more philosophical due to the abstract dialectical language in which its central inspiration is expressed. We see this component factor of expression over-enlarged into an apparently fundamental religious conflict when we consider the arguments concerning orthodox Christian ‘faith’ versus Gnostic ‘knowledge’.[49] On the psychological level, what, finally, is the difference between ‘faith’, a sense of ineffable religious righteousness or feeling, and ‘gnosis’, a non-rational, ineffable kind of ‘knowledge’? Such terms are ‘fused’ in normal religious thought. Their use merely depends upon whichever seems the more appropriate word to express the ineffable in the context of the religious discourse or vernacular. The word ‘faith’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is more likely to be used when the speaker does not seek to draw upon (or wishes to bypass) philosophic conception in describing this feeling.[50] This is primarily how the orthodox Christian hermeneutic operates. Its worldview finds expression and justification in literal, material, anti-philosophic, ethical-political doctrine rather than theoretical philosophical dialectic (Neoplatonism) or mytho-poetic narrative-philosophy (Gnosticism).

The primary religious difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism (i.e. significantly affecting worldview) is in the degree of world denial. In both traditions the world is ‘fallen’, man a creature of sin. Gnosticism includes the world rulers and creators as part of this corruption, whereas orthodox Christianity does not. This is the source of the orthodox Christian claim that Gnosticism is “nihilistic”,[51] yet ‘greater world denial’ does not necessarily equate to ‘rejection of all religious principles’. Accordingly, orthodox Christianity values collective social, ethical, and earlier-religious sources of meaning more than Gnosticism.[52] The effect of this upon orthodox Christianity is that, ironically, man is actually considered more flawed in relation to the deity. God, unlike The One, becomes the representative of earthly social, ethical, and traditionally authoritive meaning; hence he is more moralistic, righteous, and transcendent.[53] The Gnostic finds salvation not in the world, not in man, but not in moral, political[54] or traditional social authorities either, only in the One, which is abstract, transcendent, ineffable, but also, significantly, immanent, within the individual. Ironically, by rejecting all other forms of meaning, Gnosticism actually makes meaning accessible to any individual anywhere at any time, provided he is in possession of gnosis, or, in more ‘psychological’ terms, is in the right ‘enlightened’ state of mind.[55] Orthodox Christianity instead seeks to locate its numinous inspiration – its gnosis, as it were – exclusively in the institution of the Church, in the holy rite (religious ‘magic’) of the Eucharist, its efficacy explained by an un-philosophical ‘magic’ designated ‘faith’.[56] It is this ‘faith’ and the associated material-historical doctrine of the orthodox Christian which seeks to invalidate all claims that his or her religion has any necessary connection to emotional expression or ‘psychology’.[57] Hence orthodox Christianity as religion remains emotional-‘psychological’ but claims it is literal, historical ‘magic’ to a startling degree.[58]


The source of the modern designation of Gnosticism as a more ‘psychological’ religion is to be found in my earlier exposition concerning how religion is structured and operates. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity can all be seen as ‘psychological’ because they are religions and, as we have seen, religions are psychologically complex human thinking constructs. However, the modern conception of Gnosticism’s especially ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ nature goes beyond this in, I argue, two different directions. These concern, respectively, modern ideas of, in the first instance, religion, and, in the second, scholastic enquiry. Today, religions are popularly understood to be prescriptive ethical systems, clearly defined in a doctrine, and based on an irrational supernatural ‘belief’ concerning existence. This conception is clearly based on the Abrahamic doctrinal religions, particularly orthodox Christianity, which are, as I have argued throughout this essay, quite exceptional in that they rather incongruously and somewhat superficially express their approximate, impressionistic, ‘fused’ mythological worldviews in deceptively discrete, specific, ethical-political-ontological-historical doctrines. As a result, religion in general is popularly considered much less ‘psychological’ today than it actually is, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, Campbell, Boyer etc. Hence, when Gnosticism is considered, its non-doctrinal expression stands out in stark relief against its worldview, perceived as startlingly similar to the familiar Christian worldview, thus rending Gnosticism, superficially, as a more ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’ religion.

The scholarly conception of Gnosticism functions in a similarly superficial manner. In simulating the rigorous standards of empirical science, modern scholarship breaks down ‘evidence’ of this ancient religion into discrete, consistent units, searching for the precision of historical truth and, again, ‘doctrine’. However, this ‘evidence’ is comprised of cultural-mythological phenomena, which are actually, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, etc., intrinsically vague, approximate, impressionistic, and ‘fused’. Most scholarship thereby produces mainly hairsplitting analysis of individual differences of presentation, expression, or social-political affiliation, comprising cultural ethos, and only rarely and indistinctly the fundamental worldview. The result is categorization of religions according to their mode of expression or obvious surface characteristics. Hence, Neoplatonism is properly a kind of transcendental philosophy rather than a religion because it is expressed in philosophical texts. Similarly, orthodox Christianity is a religion since it has a church, expresses itself in doctrine and has authoritative-sounding texts. Gnosticism’s mixture of poetry and literary-style narrative text analysis seems too ‘wild’ to be sensible philosophy or a ‘serious’[59] religion. Again, its diverse, impressionistic texts defy (inappropriately) concise definition. Hence it remains, colloquially, a strange, complex curiosity, to be picked over for intellectual tidbits and branded as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’.

Considered inappropriately through the prisms of doctrinal religion or rationalistic scholarship, the ‘mystic’, ‘psychological’ aspect of any and all religion is selected as Gnosticism’s unique possession. Both approaches make essentially the same mistake in considering religion to be defined by a discrete, specific, concise thinking-process rather than an impressionistic, general, ‘fused’ non-conscious interaction between a Geertzian worldview and cultural ethos, producing an orientating ineffable numinous motivation and inspiration for life. However, such a ‘psychological’ aspect is not so much absent from as not unique to Gnosticism. In fact, we could put this slightly more positively as: Gnosticism is unique in that the ‘psychological’ aspect of general religious conception is more obvious to modern thinkers in its mode of expression than other known religions. However, modern thinkers do not generally realize this, or at least, express it this way.


Primary Texts
Epiphanius Panarion trans. P. R. Armidon (New York and Oxford, 1990).
Irenaeus Against the Heresies trans. D. J. Unger (New York and Mahwah, N. J., 1992).
Plotinus Enneads trans. J. Gregory (London, 1991).
On the Origin of the World trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
The Secret Book of John trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
Tertullian On the Prescription of Heretics trans. T. H. Bindley (London, 1914).

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Beck, R. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York, 2006).
Boyer, P. Religion Explained (London, 2001).
Cahana, J. “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Antitraditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” The Journal of Religion 94 (2014): 49-73.
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Cassirer, E. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II: Mythic Thought trans. R. Manheim (New Haven and London, 1955).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Dunderberg, I. Beyond Gnosticism (New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).
Filoramo, G. A History of Gnosticism trans. A. Alcock (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Gregory, J. The Neoplatonists (London, 1991).
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
King, K. L. “The Politics of Syncretism and the Problem of Defining Gnosticism,” Historical Reflections 27 (2001): 461-79.
King, K. L. What is Gnosticism? (London, 2003).
Leloup, J. The Gospel of Philip trans. J. Rowe (Rochester, Vermont, 2003).
Meyer, M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (New York, 2007).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pennachio, John. “Gnostic Inner Illumination and Carl Jung’s Individuation,” Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 237-45.
Rasimus, T. “Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library,” Vigiliae Christianae 59 (2005): 235-63.
Rudolph, K. Gnosis: the Nature and History of an Ancient Religion trans. R. M. Wilson (Leipzig, 1977).
Wallis, R. T. and Bregman, J., eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, 1992).


[1] Jonas expounded in King (2003), 114.

[2] Leloup (2003), x; Needleman’s italics.

[3] Leloup (2003), 2.

[4] Wallis and Bregman (1992), 4; Filoramo (1990), xiv; King (2003), 19. Cf. Pennachio (1992).

[5] Campbell (1968), 158.

[6] Dunderberg (2008), 16; or 18th century according to Rudolph (1977), 55.

[7] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[8] Rudolph (1977), 55. Aside from use by the Gnostics themselves, the Church Fathers refer to Gnosticism as the “gnosis falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6: 20 cited in Rudolph (1977), 55).

[9] Campbell (1968), 158. Rudolph (1977) prefers ‘insight’.

[10] Campbell (1968), 158. Campbell compares Gnosticism to Buddhism, which is based on the word for ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit, and with its own variety of non-rationalistic ‘knowledge’.

[11] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[12] There is certainly no scholarship to the effect that gnosis represents ‘rationalistic’ knowledge.

[13] Dunderberg (2008), 16.

[14] Though they may appear to. See the discussion of ‘doctrine’ versus ‘worldview’ in footnote 28; more on this later.

[15] To clarify, ‘impressionistic’ in this essay suggests a subjective, emotional, unsystematic reaction or thinking style.

[16] The debate surrounding the ‘definition’ of Gnosticism seems unknowingly and bizarrely preoccupied with defining what exactly we mean by religion in general, merely approached through the example of Gnosticism. We do not generally spend most or all of an article on, say, Christianity or Judaism, trying to define the word we use for that religion before we have even began. The whole approach seems to be hairsplitting or, at least, based on certain unspoken (or unconscious) assumptions.

[17] Dunderberg (2008), 15. It can of course be useful to make such distinctions in terms of historical-political scholarship but we must remember that these are fundamentally artificial (even, merely linguistic) methodological conveniences which often have very little to do with actual religious experience. Furthermore, a particular cultural idea or trait is never a single, clearly-defined, identically structured or reproduced ethereal ‘substance’ or ‘quality’, but a mere approximate similarity in terms of a thinking process or element among a group of discrete individuals (see Boyer (2001), 40). The scholarly designation of ‘Sethian’ versus, say, ‘Orphite’ Gnosticism (see Rasimus (2005), for example) produces further muddles. Are we talking here about different religions, different sects, or different regional variation in the expression of ideas within Gnosticism? Surely Lutherans are not Muslims, but are Sufis not Muslims because they are not Sunnis? And what about the Japanese person who might be Zen Buddhist and Shinto? We must make clear exactly what we are interested in: the meaning of Gnosticism for its professors or for the outsiders or enemies of the Gnostics? The perspective here will make all the difference but it is surprising how often these different perspectives are not differentiated, declared, even blurred together in the scholarship. There often is a world of difference between the mental reality of religious thinking and the self-identification of religious categories according to believers, non-believers, and individual religious scholars. My own interest is in the mindset of those inspired by, most intimately involved in, the ‘practisers’ of, Gnosticism (we might call them Gnostic ‘believers’).

[18] Cassirer (1946).

[19] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[20] Cassirer (1955), 78.

[21] This is why today, when such relatively discrete compartments of thinking have been separated we are more likely to redefine the earlier mode not so much as ‘fused’ but as ‘confused’, even ‘irrational’, ‘silly’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘wrong’, etc.

[22] This accords with modern understandings of the plethora of simultaneous non-conscious inference systems constantly operating in the human mind as outlined in Boyer (2001), 109-12.

[23] Since ‘mysticism’ by definition assumes an overriding of intellectual thinking, all religions can be considered ‘mystic’ because ‘fused’ thought is necessarily more or other than intellectual. Similarly, we might consider all religions as ‘syncretistic’ despite dogmatic claims for exclusivity, see King (2001), 463 for discussion of the term ‘syncretistic’.

[24] What this essentially means is that you cannot ‘prove’ two individuals are not inspired by the same religion just because they consciously express different words or conceptions. There is, in religious matters, an essential disconnect between conscious expression and non-conscious thought such as Boyer can remark: “when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about” (Boyer (2001), 108).

[25] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[26] As per Ruth Millikan, mental conception functions much less like an encyclopedia, collating ‘definitions’, than as a process for acquiring practical mental skills of recognition and evaluation (Boyer (2001), 129).

[27] I might add that the mythic worldview is not just the ‘lowest common denominator’ of a particular collection of culture-values (i.e. the ethos). This is partly because religious worldviews tend toward the more not less meaningful conception (hence we could argue it is more like the ‘highest common denominator’), but there are actually a distinct number of psychological factors which make some ideas and not others good candidates for religious conception. See Boyer (2001), 19-20, 33-4.

[28] I would not say ‘indoctrinated’ here. A Geertzian worldview is totally different from a doctrine. A doctrine is specific, discrete and philosophically stated. It is usually associated with political or ethical rather than mythological thinking. It functions more like a constitution in relation to a set of laws and in this respect it says more or less precisely what it means. A religious doctrine is, as per Boyer, not a precondition of all religion, but peculiar only to some (Boyer (2001), 159). Such a doctrine often functions as a justification for equating, repressing or restructuring primary religious inspiration with or by ethical-ideological dogma (see Hayden (2003), 5-12).

[29] See King (2001), 469-71 for her explanation involving the metaphor of cookery.

[30] For application of the Geertzian ethos-worldview in more modern scholarship, see Beck (2006), particularly 67-71; also, King (2001), 469-70.

[31] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[32] Otto (1923), 5-71. See also Boyer (2001), 145: feelings are the natural outcomes of our complex non-conscious inference systems.

[33] As per Geertz (1957), the use of ‘worldview’ refers to a decidedly impressionistic, ‘fused’, general overarching conception by definition. My use of ‘worldview’ does not imply a specific, discrete, precisely proscribed concept, and certainly not a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[34] See Meyer (2007), 199-222, 103-32.

[35] Rudolph (1977), 118.

[36] Such a rendition is relatively rare in scholarship, perhaps because making such generalized statements about a religion smacks of imprecision or simplification. However, I have already shown how systematic precision is misplaced when talking about ‘fused’ mytho-religious thought. And when such a statement is made in scholarship, it ends up sounding very like a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[37]We do not actually know what these were in any detail.

[38] Dunderberg (2008), 15.

[39] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[40]Which is no doubt the source of this conception in Gnosticism also; both religions share an ethos.

[41] The sun and moon were considered planets in ancient times.

[42] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[43] Gregory (1991), 102.

[44] It is possible of course to see these as explanations rather than proofs, but, if this is the case, Plotinus does not seem to provide any proofs for his philosophy as very rarely is any other form of evidence offered.

[45] See again the designation of some modern psychologists as ‘modern Gnostics’ in my introduction section.

[46] Hayden (2003), 4-12.

[47] See Campbell (1964), 407-19.

[48] Rudolph (1977), 12, 14, 15, 19. For example, in reference to the perversion of scripture and the allegedly confused basis of Gnostic myth, Irenaeus claims “what is ambiguous [the Gnostics] cleverly and deceitfully adapt to their fabrication by an unusual explanation” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.35) and, “[s]uch is their system which neither the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down,” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 8.1). Epiphanius argues that the Gnostics “fabricate books … basing themselves on pagan superstition … thereby weaving together truth and falsehood” (Epiphanius, Panarion 26.1.3). Tertullian also rails against false origins (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 21) and inconsistency (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 51). Epiphanius stretches credibility with his long diatribe detailing the apparent perversity of the Gnostics’ sexual practices which he claims include promiscuity (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.1), masturbation (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.1), homosexuality (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.8), and obscene rituals involving sexual orgies and abortions (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.5-5.2).

[49] Rudolph (1977), 15. For example, see Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 6.2.

[50] By philosophy here I mean both evidence-based ‘empirical’ philosophy, and the more general, ‘rational thinking’ variety. Indeed, the rejection of philosophy seems explicit in statements such as the following from Tertullian: “‘Thy faith,’ Christ said, ‘hath saved thee,’ not thy argumentative skill in the Scriptures” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 14).

[51] Rudolph (1977), 16.

[52] See Cahana (2014) for a study of Gnosticism’s unusual rejection of virtually all tradition.

[53]This is what Tertullian unknowingly expresses when he argues that Gnosticism “blurs the fixed limits that separate the creature from the deity” (H. von Campenhausen qtd. in Rudolph (1977), 16).

[54] King (2001), 476-7 finds the Gnostic position more political, as in, the Gnostic opposition to celestial and earthly rulers can be seen as a political protest against Roman authority. I acknowledge this is possible although the extant Gnostic texts read as religious texts and not political tracts. I suspect the distinction ‘more political’ may again be a qualifier which heralds from measuring Gnostic implications in relation to perceived Christian orthodoxy (itself possibly more explicitly political in its day than today). My point is that most religions can be skewed into political discourses, but such do not afford a complete picture of the religious experience, which is, as King ends up acknowledging, “somewhat ambivalent” (King (2001), 477) when it comes to advocating a radical political cause.

[55]See Campbell (1964), 366; Campbell (1968), 157-8.

[56] I am not here precluding the possibility that Gnosticism may have had a ‘magic’ ritual aspect too, only that, if it did have this aspect, there was also a philosophical-emotional reading involved as well. The extant Gnostic texts tell us little about ritual practice but they certainly reveal that there was no fixed doctrinal expression or denial of a philosophical-emotional approach to gnosis.

[57] For example, Irenaeus criticizes the Gnostics for supposing “they can surpass the apostles … and trust their inner capacity to innovate and progress spiritually” (Cahana (2014), 54).

[58] Perhaps one reason it does this is to distinguish itself from Gnosticism in the first place – who can say.

[59] I.e. dogmatic.