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Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Psychology

The baroque exuberance and mythological richness of Gnosticism stands in marked contrast - indeed, as the counterpole to - the clarity and simplicity of Neoplatonism.

This richness was due to the fact that Gnosticism was unusually syncretic even in an age of syncretism.  It blended inspiration from biblical, Christian, Jewish apocalyptic, Neoplatonic, and various mystery religion and astrological sources.

In contrast to Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, which saw the cosmos as something harmonious and good, even if only an image of the spiritual realities, the Gnostic sects had a pessimistic view of the world. This is not to say that the Neoplatonist position was wholly cosmos-affirming. All Platonists saw the sense world as an imperfect and inferior reflection of the ideal spiritual world, and the Neoplatonists were no exception. As Daniel McBride (author of The Egyptian Foundations of Gnostic Thought, University of Toronto, 1994) pointed out to me in an email, Neoplatonism wrestled with the conundrum of emanationist theories which saw a pure and unsullied source somehow "diminished" in emanating down to our level. Some of these philosophers were as dualistic as any Gnostic.

Depending on the particular sect of Gnostic, the origin of the Cosmos is interpreted either as the result of a pre-creation fall of the lowest divine Aeon within the Pleroma itself, or alternatively as the result of an eternally pre-existent Darkness which attacked the Light, the resulting mixture being this cosmos.  In any case, The visible cosmos was a creation of inferior and anti-spiritual powers, the Archons or "rulers".  It is a place of ignorance and deficiency, controlled by heimarmene - fate, destiny - and ruled over by the evil archons.  As such it is a prison in which the spirit or Divine Spark is trapped, in exile from its true home above.  The goal of existence is to extract the sparks trapped in matter, so that they can return to their true spiritual home.

Salvation is brought about through the message or revelation of the heavenly redeemer - for Christian Gnostics Christ; for others either another personality like Seth, or the female Divine Thought of the Absolute - who descends from the Pleroma through all the intermediate regions to the physical; usually putting on some disguise while doing so in order to fool the Archons.  The message the Redeemer brings is Gnosis - the saving Knowledge that awakens the spiritual soul from the sleep of ignorance and reminds it where its true home is.  In contrast to exoteric religions, it is not blind faith in, or obedience to, a God, but spiritual Self-Knowledge, that confers salvation.  Indeed, the Gnostics were very critical of exoteric religion, identifying the God of the Old Testament with the chief Archon.

The modern, popular, psychological (e.g. Jungian and pop-Eastern) interpretation of what the Gnostics were on about is that the archons are representative of the negative, ignorant, and lower passionate tendencies within the psyche; tendencies that have to be overcome if one is to attain spiritual enlightenment.  And it is only through self-knowledge, in the deepest, most profound metaphysical sense, - Gnosis - that the ignorance that the archons represent can be vanquished.  But this theory, although it is a valid observation of the human condition and the nature of Enlightenment, is most not what the Gnostics were referring to.  Basically, the Gnostics believed in the literal identification of the archons with the astrological planets and heavens, in the same way that the modern-day Christian fundamentalist believes in the the literal creation by God of man out of a lump of clay.  It may be fashionable in some circles to make the ancient Gnostics seem "modern" and "rational", but it is also an injustice to them and what they were really on about.  Classical Gnosticism was a fundamentalist religion with a rich mythology - as opposed to dogmatic Christianity which is a fundamentalist religion with a poor mythology - not some ancient version of "New Age" or "Eastern" psychology (worthy as those things may be in their own right).

But what Classical Gnosticism did teach is that through Gnosis, and the associated religious (baptisimal), magical, and mystical (contemplative) techniques, the spiritual soul is able rise through all the intermediate heavens and realms, passing all the gods and archons who rule them, and return to the original Pleromatic Source.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 June 1998, last modified 6 June 2004