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The Gnostic World View
by Stephan Hoeller

A Brief Summary of Gnosticism

GNOSTICISM IS THE TEACHING based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experience results in Gnostic recognitions. It is nearer the truth to say that Gnosticism expresses a specific religious experience, an experience that does not lend itself to the language of theology or philosophy, but which is instead closely affinitized to, and expresses itself through, the medium of myth. Indeed, one finds that most Gnostic scriptures take the forms of myths. The term "myth" should not here be taken to mean "stories that are not true", but rather, that the truths embodied in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the statements of philosophy.

In the following summary, we will attempt to encapsulate in prose what the Gnostic myths express in their distinctively poetic and imaginative language.

The Cosmos

All religious traditions acknowledge that the world is imperfect. Where they differ is in the explanations which they offer to account for this imperfection and in what they suggest might be done about it. Gnostics have their own — perhaps quite startling — view of these matters: they hold that the world is flawed because it was created in a flawed manner.

Like Buddhism, Gnosticism begins with the fundamental recognition that earthly life is filled with suffering. In order to nourish themselves, all forms of life consume each other, thereby visiting pain, fear, and death upon one another (even herbivorous animals live by destroying the life of plants). In addition, so-called natural catastrophes — earthquakes, floods, fires, drought, volcanic eruptions — bring further suffering and death in their wake. Human beings, with their complex physiology and psychology, are aware not only of these painful features of earthly existence. They also suffer from the frequent recognition that they are strangers living in a world that is flawed and absurd.

Many religions advocate that humans are to be blamed for the imperfections of the world. Supporting this view, they interpret the Genesis myth as declaring that transgressions committed by the first human pair brought about a "fall" of creation resulting in the present corrupt state of the world. Gnostics respond that this interpretation of the myth is false. The blame for the world's failings lies not with humans, but with the creator. Since — especially in the monotheistic religions — the creator is God, this Gnostic position appears blasphemous, and is often viewed with dismay even by non-believers.

Ways of evading the recognition of the flawed creation and its flawed creator have been devised over and over, but none of these arguments have impressed Gnostics. The ancient Greeks, especially the Platonists, advised people to look to the harmony of the universe, so that by venerating its grandeur they might forget their immediate afflictions. But since this harmony still contains the cruel flaws, forlornness and alienation of existence, this advice is considered of little value by Gnostics. Nor is the Eastern idea of Karma regarded by Gnostics as an adequate explanation of creation's imperfection and suffering. Karma at best can only explain how the chain of suffering and imperfection works. It does not inform us in the first place why such a sorrowful and malign system should exist.

Once the initial shock of the "unusual" or "blasphemous" nature of the Gnostic explanation for suffering and imperfection of the world wears off, one may begin to recognize that it is in fact the most sensible of all explanations. To appreciate it fully, however, a familiarity with the Gnostic conception of the Godhead is required, both in its original essence as the True God and in its debased manifestation as the false or creator God.


The Gnostic God concept is more subtle than that of most religions. In its way, it unites and reconciles the recognitions of Monotheism and Polytheism, as well as of Theism, Deism and Pantheism.

In the Gnostic view, there is a true, ultimate and transcendent God, who is beyond all created universes and who never created anything in the sense in which the word "create" is ordinarily understood. While this True God did not fashion or create anything, He (or, It) "emanated" or brought forth from within Himself the substance of all there is in all the worlds, visible and invisible. In a certain sense, it may therefore be true to say that all is God, for all consists of the substance of God. By the same token, it must also be recognized that many portions of the original divine essence have been projected so far from their source that they underwent unwholesome changes in the process. To worship the cosmos, or nature, or embodied creatures is thus tantamount to worshipping alienated and corrupt portions of the emanated divine essence.

The basic Gnostic myth has many variations, but all of these refer to Aeons, intermediate deific beings who exist between the ultimate, True God and ourselves. They, together with the True God, comprise the realm of Fullness (Pleroma) wherein the potency of divinity operates fully. The Fullness stands in contrast to our existential state, which in comparison may be called emptiness.

One of the aeonial beings who bears the name Sophia ("Wisdom") is of great importance to the Gnostic world view. In the course of her journeyings, Sophia came to emanate from her own being a flawed consciousness, a being who became the creator of the material and psychic cosmos, all of which he created in the image of his own flaw. This being, unaware of his origins, imagined himself to be the ultimate and absolute God. Since he took the already existing divine essence and fashioned it into various forms, he is also called the Demiurgos or "half-maker" There is an authentic half, a true deific component within creation, but it is not recognized by the half-maker and by his cosmic minions, the Archons or "rulers".

The Human Being

Human nature mirrors the duality found in the world: in part it was made by the false creator God and in part it consists of the light of the True God. Humankind contains a perishable physical and psychic component, as well as a spiritual component which is a fragment of the divine essence. This latter part is often symbolically referred to as the "divine spark". The recognition of this dual nature of the world and of the human being has earned the Gnostic tradition the epithet of "dualist".

Humans are generally ignorant of the divine spark resident within them. This ignorance is fostered in human nature by the influence of the false creator and his Archons, who together are intent upon keeping men and women ignorant of their true nature and destiny. Anything that causes us to remain attached to earthly things serves to keep us in enslavement to these lower cosmic rulers. Death releases the divine spark from its lowly prison, but if there has not been a substantial work of Gnosis undertaken by the soul prior to death, it becomes likely that the divine spark will be hurled back into, and then re-embodied within, the pangs and slavery of the physical world.

Not all humans are spiritual (pneumatics) and thus ready for Gnosis and liberation. Some are earthbound and materialistic beings (hyletics), who recognize only the physical reality. Others live largely in their psyche (psychics). Such people usually mistake the Demiurge for the True God and have little or no awareness of the spiritual world beyond matter and mind.

In the course of history, humans progress from materialistic sensate slavery, by way of ethical religiosity, to spiritual freedom and liberating Gnosis. As the scholar G. Quispel wrote: "The world-spirit in exile must go through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise." This kind of evolution of consciousness was envisioned by the Gnostics, long before the concept of evolution was known.


Evolutionary forces alone are insufficient, however, to bring about spiritual freedom. Humans are caught in a predicament consisting of physical existence combined with ignorance of their true origins, their essential nature and their ultimate destiny. To be liberated from this predicament, human beings require help, although they must also contribute their own efforts.

From earliest times Messengers of the Light have come forth from the True God in order to assist humans in their quest for Gnosis. Only a few of these salvific figures are mentioned in Gnostic scripture; some of the most important are Seth (the third Son of Adam), Jesus, and the Prophet Mani. The majority of Gnostics always looked to Jesus as the principal savior figure (the Soter).

Gnostics do not look to salvation from sin (original or other), but rather from the ignorance of which sin is a consequence. Ignorance -- whereby is meant ignorance of spiritual realities -- is dispelled only by Gnosis, and the decisive revelation of Gnosis is brought by the Messengers of Light, especially by Christ, the Logos of the True God. It is not by His suffering and death but by His life of teaching and His establishing of mysteries that Christ has performed His work of salvation.

The Gnostic concept of salvation, like other Gnostic concepts, is a subtle one. On the one hand, Gnostic salvation may easily be mistaken for an unmediated individual experience, a sort of spiritual do-it-yourself project. Gnostics hold that the potential for Gnosis, and thus, of salvation is present in every man and woman, and that salvation is not vicarious but individual. At the same time, they also acknowledge that Gnosis and salvation can be, indeed must be, stimulated and facilitated in order to effectively arise within consciousness. This stimulation is supplied by Messengers of Light who, in addition to their teachings, establish salvific mysteries (sacraments) which can be administered by apostles of the Messengers and their successors.

One needs also remember that knowledge of our true nature -- as well as other associated realizations -- are withheld from us by our very condition of earthly existence. The True God of transcendence is unknown in this world, in fact He is often called the Unknown Father. It is thus obvious that revelation from on High is needed to bring about salvation. The indwelling spark must be awakened from its terrestrial slumber by the saving knowledge that comes "from without".


If the words "ethics" or "morality" are taken to mean a system of rules, then Gnosticism is opposed to them both. Such systems usually originate with the Demiurge and are covertly designed to serve his purposes. If, on the other hand, morality is said to consist of an inner integrity arising from the illumination of the indwelling spark, then the Gnostic will embrace this spiritually informed existential ethic as ideal.

To the Gnostic, commandments and rules are not salvific; they are not substantially conducive to salvation. Rules of conduct may serve numerous ends, including the structuring of an ordered and peaceful society, and the maintenance of harmonious relations within social groups. Rules, however, are not relevant to salvation; that is brought about only by Gnosis. Morality therefore needs to be viewed primarily in temporal and secular terms; it is ever subject to changes and modifications in accordance with the spiritual development of the individual.

As noted in the discussion above, "hyletic materialists" usually have little interest in morality, while "psychic disciplinarians" often grant to it a great importance. In contrast, "Pneumatic spiritual" persons are generally more concerned with other, higher matters. Different historical periods also require variant attitudes regarding human conduct. Thus both the Manichaean and Cathar Gnostic movements, which functioned in times where purity of conduct was regarded as an issue of high import, responded in kind. The present period of Western culture perhaps resembles in more ways that of second and third century Alexandria. It seems therefore appropriate that Gnostics in our age adopt the attitudes of classical Alexandrian Gnosticism, wherein matters of conduct were largely left to the insight of the individual.

Gnosticism embraces numerous general attitudes toward life: it encourages non-attachment and non-conformity to the world, a "being in the world, but not of the world"; a lack of egotism; and a respect for the freedom and dignity of other beings. Nonetheless, it appertains to the intuition and wisdom of every individual "Gnostic" to distill from these principles individual guidelines for their personal application.


When Confucius was asked about death, he replied: "Why do you ask me about death when you do not know how to live?" This answer might easily have been given by a Gnostic. To a similar question posed in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus answered that human beings must come by Gnosis to know the ineffable, divine reality from whence they have originated, and whither they will return. This transcendental knowledge must come to them while they are still embodied on earth.

Death does not automatically bring about liberation from bondage in the realms of the Demiurge. Those who have not attained to a liberating Gnosis while they were in embodiment may become trapped in existence once more. It is quite likely that this might occur by way of the cycle of rebirths. Gnosticism does not emphasize the doctrine of reincarnation prominently, but it is implicitly understood in most Gnostic teachings that those who have not made effective contact with their transcendental origins while they were in embodiment would have to return into the sorrowful condition of earthly life.

In regard to salvation, or the fate of the spirit and soul after death, one needs to be aware that help is available. Valentinus, the greatest of Gnostic teachers, taught that Christ and Sophia await the spiritual man -- the pneumatic Gnostic -- at the entrance of the Pleroma, and help him to enter the bridechamber of final reunion. Ptolemaeus, disciple of Valentinus, taught that even those not of pneumatic status, the psychics, could be redeemed and live in a heavenworld at the entrance of the Pleroma. In the fullness of time, every spiritual being will receive Gnosis and will be united with its higher Self -- the angelic Twin -- thus becoming qualified to enter the Pleroma. None of this is possible, however, without earnest striving for Gnosis.

Gnosis and Psyche: The Depth Psychological Connection

Throughout the twentieth Century the new scientific discipline of depth psychology has gained much prominence. Among the depth psychologists who have shown a pronounced and informed interest in Gnosticism, a place of signal distinction belongs to C. G. Jung. Jung was instrumental in calling attention to the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic writings in the 1950's because he perceived the outstanding psychological relevance of Gnostic insights.

The noted scholar of Gnosticism, G. Filoramo, wrote: "Jung's reflections had long been immersed in the thought of the ancient Gnostics to such an extent that he considered them the virtual discoverers of 'depth psychology' . . . ancient Gnosis, albeit in its form of universal religion, in a certain sense prefigured, and at the same time helped to clarify, the nature of Jungian spiritual therapy." In the light of such recognitions one may ask: "Is Gnosticism a religion or a psychology?" The answer is that it may very-well be both. Most mythologems found in Gnostic scriptures possess psychological relevance and applicability. For instance the blind and arrogant creator-demiurge bears a close resemblance to the alienated human ego that has lost contact with the ontological Self. Also, the myth of Sophia resembles closely the story of the human psyche that loses its connection with the collective unconscious and needs to be rescued by the Self. Analogies of this sort exist in great profusion.

Many esoteric teachings have proclaimed, "As it is above, so it is below." Our psychological nature (the microcosm) mirrors metaphysical nature (the macrocosm), thus Gnosticism may possess both a psychological and a religious authenticity. Gnostic psychology and Gnostic religion need not be exclusive of one another but may complement each other within an implicit order of wholeness. Gnostics have always held that divinity is immanent within the human spirit, although it is not limited to it. The convergence of Gnostic religious teaching with psychological insight is thus quite understandable in terms of time-honored Gnostic principles.


Some writers make a distinction between "Gnosis" and "Gnosticism". Such distinctions are both helpful and misleading. Gnosis is undoubtedly an experience based not in concepts and precepts, but in the sensibility of the heart. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is the world-view based on the experience of Gnosis. For this reason, in languages other than English, the word Gnosis is often used to denote both the experience and the world view (die Gnosis in German, la Gnose in French).

In a sense, there is no Gnosis without Gnosticism, for the experience of Gnosis inevitably calls forth a world view wherein it finds its place. The Gnostic world view is experiential, it is based on a certain kind of spiritual experience of Gnosis. Therefore, it will not do to omit, or to dilute, various parts of the Gnostic world view, for were one to do this, the world view would no longer conform to experience.

Theology has been called an intellectual wrapping around the spiritual kernel of a religion. If this is true, then it is also true that most religions are being strangled and stifled by their wrappings. Gnosticism does not run this danger, because its world view is stated in myth rather than in theology. Myths, including the Gnostic myths, may be interpreted in diverse ways. Transcendence, numinosity, as well as psychological archetypes along with other elements, play a role in such interpretation. Still, such mythic statements tell of profound truths that will not be denied.

Gnosticism can bring us such truths with a high authority, for it speaks with the voice of the highest part of the human -- the spirit. Of this spirit, it has been said, "it bloweth where it listeth". This then is the reason why the Gnostic world view could not be extirpated in spite of many centuries of persecution.

The Gnostic world view has always been timely, for it always responded best to the "knowledge of the heart" that is true Gnosis. Yet today, its timeliness is increasing, for the end of the second millennium has seen the radical deterioration of many ideologies which evaded the great questions and answers addressed by Gnosticism. The clarity, frankness, and authenticity of the Gnostic answer to the questions of the human predicament cannot fail to impress and (in time) to convince. If your reactions to this summary have been of a similarly positive order, then perhaps you are a Gnostic yourself!

Read more of Stephan Hoeller's work and a description of the Gnostic Society at the Gnosis Archive at

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What Is A Gnostic?
by Stephan Hoeller

Gnosticism, they say, is on the upsurge...
So just what is it?

Are we witnessing a rediscovery of Gnosticism? To judge from the burgeoning new literature and the increased use of the terms "gnosis" and "Gnosticism" in popular publications, the answer would seem to be yes. Only twenty-five years ago, when one used the word "Gnostic," it was very likely to be misunderstood as "agnostic," and thus have one's statement turned into its exact opposite. Such misapprehensions are far less likely today. Nevertheless, increased academic attention (beginning with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures in 1945) and the ensuing popular interest have produced a confusion of tongues which is anything but helpful for the sincere inquirer into matters Gnostic. It is often difficult even to tell what is meant by the word.

The difficulty in defining Gnosticism is not entirely of recent origin. As early as 1910, a small book was published in London that in many ways foreshadowed current trends, including the difficulties in definition. The title of the work was Gnosticism: The Coming Apostasy; the author, a certain D. M. Panton, was an anxious defender of Christian orthodoxy, which he felt was menaced by an emerging Gnostic revival. Gnosticism, Panton wrote, had surfaced in the twentieth century in the forms of Theosophy, Christian Science, some forms of spiritualism, and in what was called the "New Theology," which had been introduced primarily by German writers on religion. (A biography of Marcion by theologian Adolf von Harnack created much interest and controversy at that time.) While earlier crypto-Gnostics, such as Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, George Fox, and Elias Hicks camouflaged their heretical beliefs, Panton argued, twentieth-century Gnostics no longer bothered with concealment. The gnosticizing movements of the early twentieth century, wrote Panton, were "frankly and jubilantly Gnostic"; their thought and their movements carried within them the "throbbing heart of Gnosticism, perhaps the most dreaded foe the Christian faith ever confronted."

In some ways Panton's anti-Gnostic tirades have an advantage over much of the more recent literature, for Panton still possessed a clear understanding of what constitutes Gnosticism. Such is not the case today. If we contrast these early-twentieth-century analyses with some current ones, we may recognize how unclear our understanding has become. In a European publication concerned with contemporary aspects of Gnosticism, Ioan Culianu writes:

Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of Late Antiquity. Of course, I was ready to accept the idea of different prolongations of ancient Gnosis, and even that of spontaneous generation of views of the world in which, at different times, the distinctive features of Gnosticism occur again.

I was soon to learn however, that I was a na∩f indeed. Not only Gnosis was gnostic, but the Catholic authors were gnostic, the Neoplatonic too, Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Kafka were gnostic.... I learned further that science is gnostic and superstition is gnostic... Hegel is gnostic and Marx is gnostic; all things and their opposite are equally gnostic.

At least one circumstance emerges from this statement that is widely overlooked in America. In Europe "Gnosis" and "Gnosticism" are almost always used interchangeably. The suggestion that term "gnosis" ought to be used to describe a state of consciousness, while "Gnosticism" should denote the Gnostic system, has never caught on. The use of such classical Gnosticism of Valentinus, Basilides, et al., persists in European literature, including the writings of such scholars as Gilles Quispel, Kurt Rudolph, and Giovanni Filoramo (to mention some of the most recent ones). It is true that the late Robert McLachlan put forth a proposal to use these terms otherwise, but current usage in Europe has not followed it.

It is evident that a word used in such contradictory ways has lost its meaning. No wonder GNOSIS writer Charles Coulombe despairs over the situation when writing recently in a Catholic publication:

In reality, "Gnosticism," like "Protestantism," is a word that has lost most of its meaning. Just as we would need to know whether a "Protestant" writer is Calvinist, Lutheran, Anabaptist, or whatever in order to evaluate him properly, so too the "Gnostic" must be identified.

A Political Confusion

One of the most confusing voices comes from the discipline of political science. In his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, ΘmigrΘ scholar Eric Voegelin rose to the defense of what he called the "classic and Christian tradition" against what he perceived as the "growth of Gnosticism." This opening salvo was followed by such books as The New Science of Politics, the multivolume Order and History, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin became a prophet of a new theory of history, in which Gnosticism played a most nefarious role. All modern totalitarian ideologies were in some way spiritually related to Gnosticism, said Voegelin. Marxists, Nazis, and just about everybody else the good professor found reprehensible were in reality Gnostics, engaged in "immanentizing the eschaton" by reconstituting society into a heaven on earth. Since Gnostics did not accept the conventional Christian eschaton of heaven and hell, Voegelin concluded that they must be engaged in a millenarian revolutionizing of earthly existence. At the same time, Voegelin was bound to admit that the Gnostics regarded the earthly realm as generally hopeless and unredeemable. One wonders how the unredeemable earthly kingdom could be turned into the "immanentized eschaton" of an earthly utopia. That Voegelin's new Gnostics had no knowledge of or sympathy with historical Gnosticism did not bother him either. Gnostics they were, and that was that.

Voegelin's confusion was made worse by a number of conservative political thinkers, mainly with Catholic connections. Thomas Molnar, Tilo Schabert, and Steven A. McKnight followed Voegelin's theories despite their obvious inconsistencies. In Molnar's view, Gnostics were not only responsible for all modern utopianism, but also for the inordinate attachment of modern people to science and technology. The scientific world view, said these folk, is in fact a Gnostic world view, and it is responsible for treating humans as machines and for making societies into machinelike collectives.

The politicized view of Gnosticism continues to have its adherents, but these are increasingly recruited from the lunatic fringe. Gnostics are still represented as dangerous subversives in pulp magazines and obscure conspiracy pamphlets "exposing" Freemasons, Satanists, and other pests. Meanwhile, respectable conservative thinkers have dropped the Gnostic issue. Some, like scholar and former U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, have subjected Voegelin and his theories to severe criticism and ridicule.

Traditionalist Difficulties

Another sometimes confusing voice comes from writers who are bent on proving that within the existing major religions a secret tradition of gnosis may be found which is not identical to the "heretical" Gnosticism of the early Christian centuries. In his 1947 work The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley promulgated a kind of gnosis that was in effect a mystery reserved for elites, revealed at the dawn of history and handed down through various religious traditions, where it still maintains itself in spite of its ostensible incompatibility with the official dogmas of those traditions. With this view, Huxley approximated the more radical position held by Traditionalists such as RenΘ GuΘnon and Frithjof Schuon.

Huxley, on the other hand, never passed judgment on anyone who called himself a Gnostic. One could only wish the same could be said of other Traditionalists. Followers of GuΘnon (who, born a Catholic, converted to Islam in a somewhat untraditional manner) often castigate the early Gnostic teachers in a manner reminiscent of the more extreme ancient polemicists like Irenaeus or Tertullian. The Traditionalists' division of Gnostic writers into "false Gnostics" and "authentic Gnostics" reflects standards that are nothing if not arbitrary; contemporary research indicates that during the first three of four centuries A.D. there was as yet no true orthodoxy and thus no heresy either. Instead, many opinions on religious matters, including gnosis, flourished side by side. Certainly there were disagreements, but to arbitrarily extrapolate standards of falsity and authenticity from these polemics does not seem justified.

Academic Ambiguities

The 1988 edition of The Nag Hammadi Library contains a lengthy afterword entitled "The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism." Its author, Richard Smith, ostensibly reviews the numerous developments in Western culture which appear to be related to Gnosticism. One would hope that here at last we might find a definition of true Gnosticism and a list of modern writers and thinkers who might appear as its representatives. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Smith lists a number of important figures of modern culture from the eighteenth century onward who were sympathetic to Gnosticism. Reading this afterword, however, one gets the impression that few of these seminal figures possessed an adequate definition of Gnosticism, and that they thus more often than not misused and misappropriated the term. The eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, for example, is accused of a "mischievous lie" in referring to the Gnostics in complimentary terms. (Admittedly Gibbon did not share the low esteem in which the Church Fathers held Gnostics, but does this make him a liar?) And the Gnostic and Manichaean sympathies of Voltaire are represented as being motivated by his opposition to churchly authority. But could the great philosophΘ have had other reasons for his views? It is well known that Voltaire was an ardent Freemason, and he might have received favorable information about Gnostics through the esoteric currents flowing in the secret fraternities of his time. Maybe he was privy to knowledge unknown to Smith.

In the same vein, Smith implies that C.G. Jung appropriated Gnosticism by turning it into psychological theory. "Jung takes the entire dualist myth and locates it within the psyche," Smith writes. Personally I have devoted the major part of my life to exploring the relationship of Jung's thought to Gnosticism, so such statements touch a nerve.

Jung was not only interested in the Gnostics, but he considered them the discoverers and certainly the most important forerunners of depth psychology. The association between Jung's psychology and Gnosticism is profound, and its scope is increasingly revealed with the passage of time and the wider availability of the Nag Hammadi scriptures. My studies have convinced me that Jung did not intend to locate the content of Gnostic teachings in the psyche pure and simple. To say that Gnosticism is "nothing but" psychology would have horrified Jung, for he opposed the concept of "nothing but." What made Jung's view radically different from those of his predecessors was simply this: he believed that Gnostic teachings and myths originated in the personal psychospiritual experience of the Gnostic sages. What originates in the psyche bears the imprint of the psyche. Hence the close affinity between Gnosticism and depth psychology. Jung's view may thus be called an interpolation, but not an appropriation. The need for definitions appears greater than ever in the light of such controversies.

Psychological and Existentialist Models

The Italian scholar Giovanni Filoramo calls attention to the fact that the Nag Hammadi scriptures were favorably received by a wide public in part because "certain areas of the cultural panorama showed a disposition, a peculiar sensitivity to the...texts,...which dealt with a phenomenon that they themselves had in some way helped to keep alive."

One of the persons who kept the Gnostic phenomenon alive was C.G. Jung's close associate, the Gnostic scholar Gilles Quispel, who labored long and hard on relating the ancient gnosis of Valentinus and other teachers to the modern gnosis of analytical psychology. He saw the Gnostic effort as involving deep insight into the ontological self, and thus as analogous to the best in depth psychology. Quispel's major work on the subject, Gnosis als Weltreligion ("Gnosis as a World Religion," published in 1972), explains in detail the relationship of Jung's model to Gnostic teachings. Quispel, like Jung himself, did not reduce Gnostic teachings to depth psychology, but rather pointed to depth psychology as a key to understanding Gnosticism.

Another key figure in the reevaluation of ancient Gnosticism was Hans Jonas. A pupil of existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger in the 1930s, Jonas turned his attention to the wisdom of the Gnostics, and discovered in them an ancient relative of existential philosophy. Existentialism's pessimism about earthly life and high regard for experience as against theory thus found a forebear and analogue. Although critical of the Gnostics' apparent "nihilism," Jonas was, along with Jung, one of the most important figures to bring Gnostic teachings into modern perspective.

The linkage effected by Jung and Jonas between Gnosticism in the past and living philosophies in the present was of crucial importance and came very close to supplying gnosis and Gnosticism with vital, living definitions. The questions posed (and answered) by the ancient Gnostics revealed themselves now, not as outlandish and bizarre, but as earlier discussions of issues addressed in more recent times by Freud, Jung, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and many others.

Toward Definition

The search for definitions is never easy, particularly in such fields as the social sciences. In these disciplines much attention must be given to the historical context in which beliefs and actions unfold. Crucial differences and similarities in nuance, tone, and subtleties of mood are more important here than hard and fast definitions. The debate about Gnosticism, it would seem, turns on such nuances, and it may well be that not much can be resolved by definitions. Nevertheless, the present chaotic conditions warrant an attempt.

In 1966, a distinguished assembly of scholars convened in Messina, Italy, for the purpose of arriving at some useful definitions of Gnosticism. The results of this gathering were not encouraging. The scholars proposed restricting the use of the term "Gnosticism" to certain second-century "heretical" movements, while the broader term "gnosis" was to be used to refer to "knowledge of the divine mysteries for an elite." While a useful attempt, it did not manage to clear up the confusion.

The difficulties in pinning down a definition of Gnosticism are intimately connected with the controversy about its origins. Was it indeed no more than a heretical offshoot, an eccentric and aberrant branch of Christianity, or was it the latest expression of a long, mostly hidden tradition that had existed for centuries before the Christian era? No one has answered these questions with final authority.

To understand Gnosticism, said Hans Jonas, one needs something very much like a musical ear. Such a Gnostic "musical ear" is not come by easily. One person who seemingly possesses it is Professor Clark Emery of the University of Miami. In a small work on William Blake, Emery summarizes twelve points on which Gnostics tended to agree. Nowhere in the current literature have I found anything else so concise and accurate in describing the normative characteristics of the Gnostic mythos. Hence I shall present it here as a suggested collection of criteria that one might apply in determining what Gnosticism is. The following characteristics may be considered normative for all Gnostic teachers and groups in the era of classical Gnosticism; thus one who adheres to some or all of them today might properly be called a Gnostic:

  • The Gnostics posited an original spiritual unity that came to be split into a plurality.
  • As a result of the precosmic division the universe was created. This was done by a leader possessing inferior spiritual powers and who often resembled the Old Testament Jehovah.
  • A female emanation of God was involved in the cosmic creation (albeit in a much more positive role than the leader).
  • In the cosmos, space and time have a malevolent character and may be personified as demonic beings separating man from God.
  • For man, the universe is a vast prison. He is enslaved both by the physical laws of nature and by such moral laws as the Mosaic code.
  • Mankind may be personified as Adam, who lies in the deep sleep of ignorance, his powers of spiritual self-awareness stupefied by materiality.
  • Within each natural man is an "inner man," a fallen spark of the divine substance. Since this exists in each man, we have the possibility of awakening from our stupefaction.
  • What effects the awakening is not obedience, faith, or good works, but knowledge. Before the awakening, men undergo troubled dreams.
  • Man does not attain the knowledge that awakens him from these dreams by cognition but through revelatory experience, and this knowledge is not information but a modification of the sensate being.
  • The awakening (i.e., the salvation) of any individual is a cosmic event.Since the effort is to restore the wholeness and unity of the Godhead, active rebellion against the moral law of the Old Testament is enjoined upon every man.

The noted sociologist Max Weber wrote in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that "the perfect conceptual definition cannot stand at the beginning, but must be left until the end of the inquiry." That is what we have done in the present inquiry also. Emery's twelve points are in every consistent with the proposal set out by the colloquium at Messina. Second-century Gnosticism is taken as the principal model for all of these definitions, a practice that appears to be sensible. Nor is any separate recognition given to any so-called "orthodox gnosis" that is occasionally alluded to, more as a figure of speech than as any discernible historical phenomenon, in the writings of some of the Church Fathers who were contemporaneous with the Gnostics. It would seem that whatever is excluded by Emery's definitions and the protocol of Messina may be more profitably considered from doctrinal perspectives other than Gnostic.

Whatever the value of this line of inquiry, at least it calls attention to definitions that are historically unimpeachable and terminologically definite. This is much more than the current literature - especially of the semipopular variety - possesses. Divisive categorizations that separate "false Gnostics" from "authentic Gnostics," especially on the basis of orthodoxies which were never relevant to either Gnosticism or the Gnostics, may have to be discarded in the light of such definitions. The random projection of contemporary fads and enthusiasms (such as feminism and the Gaia hypothesis) onto Gnosticism might also have to be controlled. But all of this seems like a small price to pay for some order and clarity in this field. We might have to take to heart the ironic admonition of Alice in Wonderland:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said,..."it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Read more of Stephan Hoeller's work and a description of the Gnostic Society at the Gnosis Archive at

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From Gnosticism to a Contemporary Spirituality
by Sarah Benson

When I discovered Gnosticism and early Christianity, I felt like a detective who has finally found the vital clue to a baffling mystery. For maybe here lay the origins of contemporary Western spirituality.

Today many religious scholars are returning to the origins of Christianity - the period before 'right belief' (which is the meaning of the Greek word, ortho-doxia) replaced the culture of experiences and beliefs.

The word Gnostic derives from the Greek word meaning knowledge, or insight that which revealed God, the origin and destiny of mankind, and how the spiritual element in people could find redemption by uniting with the spiritual in the cosmos.

The pre-Christian Gnostic movement was complex. The Jewish sects of what is now northern Syria provided the foundation for Gnostic ideas. These sects were also influenced by Iranian religious thought (Zoroastrianism) and by the Greek-speaking Jews. Ancient Egyptian spiritual culture was also incorporated, for instance the mystery cult of Isis and Osiris. Existing within the Roman Empire, the Gnostics were nevertheless also in conflict with it. They were a movement of the spirit without definite frontiers, in many lands, through many centuries.

Since then, scholars have indicated that the Roman Empire's role in the crucifixion of Christ was significant. Could the early confluence of Christian and Judaic ideas have implications for the religious and political conflicts that still exist today could people of diverse religious backgrounds find common ground once again in ideas arising from the search for truth?

Christian ideas, in the two centuries after Christ's death, entered a world of astonishing religious and intellectual richness and diversity. Yet the emerging Christian orthodoxy regarded as heretics those who had received 'gnosis'. The Gnostics, with their belief in an individual path to God, without earthly leaders, challenged the Christian hierarchy that had become the spiritual bulwark of the Roman Empire. As a result they were persecuted for at least a thousand years. In the 13th century more than a million gnostic Cathari were killed in Europe. Gnostics hid; they often met in underground gravesites known as catacombs.

Our knowledge of Gnosticism has been considerably broadened by the discovery in 1945 of a library of Gnostic texts in the cliffs at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These extraordinary documents largely recount meetings between the risen Christ and his followers. The ideas in them are revolutionary, and reveal some very contemporary ideas.

For example, the risen Christ speaks of the importance of the individual's search for truth. 'I am knowledge of the truth, for whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but whoever has known himself has simultaneously achieved knowledge about the depth of all things.'

In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the discovered texts, Christ says to his companions, 'If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.' Carl Jung called Gnostics the first psychologists, and psychologists, sometimes called the new priesthood would appreciate these ideas.

A scholar of the Gnostics, Elaine Pagels, explains: "No one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act. People are first led to believe in the saviour through others, but when they become mature they no longer rely on mere human testimony but discover instead their own immediate relationship with truth." How this is to be done is one of the great questions of our time.

A renewed search has been under way during the latter half of this century for paths back to knowledge and enlightenment, and this new exploration of the spiritual is happening in a way that very much emphasises the individual path.

In the Gnostic texts, Christ exhorts his followers to seek knowledge, enlightenment and spiritual transformation themselves, by going inwards, rather than in subservience to an outer authority for it is through spiritual transformation that the evil in the world can be overcome.

The Nag Hammadi discovery may also help to explain why people such as Blake, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietsche were fascinated by Christ but found themselves at odds with Christian orthodoxy. In a way, these men were modern Gnostics, asking questions that many are asking today. Who was Christ, and how is one to understand the resurrection or the Second Coming? Why are we here; why good and evil? Does gnostic Christianity, with its belief in a personal path to enlightenment, bear similarities to eastern religions?

Twentieth century thinker and clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner had similar connection to Christianity as did these artists and writers, seeing his work as a development of Gnosticism, although presented in a way that was compatible with Western consciousness. He devoted his life to the union of clear, logical thought and spiritual endeavour. In this way he attempted to modernise spiritual 'gnosis' and to bring it in a form that would help human and spiritual development become attuned to the civilisational needs of the times.

Anthroposophy, he said, was a development of 'esoteric' Christianity - the thread of which has been woven through history from the time of Christ through the Rosicrucians, Cathars, Albighenses, Knights Templar and the Theosophical movement. Contemporary Gnostic scholar van Unnik also cites both Theosophy and Anthroposophy as modern forms of Gnosticism. This knowledge was given in such a way as to minimise the possibility of it becoming dogma.

Hence my experience an exciting discovery on first reading these gnostic sayings of Christ: that Rudolf Steiner was in contact with the absolute essence of Christ's message. Particularly interesting to me was the fact that the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were discovered long after the death of Steiner.

He also worked to prepare human beings for the possibility of meeting Christ once again at this time, not in the physical body but in the etheric realm that dimension of the life-forces that permeates the material world. This 'second coming' is to become more visible and apparent in the decades to come, he says. How can we begin to approach such a path?

In his book 'Knowledge of the Higher Worlds' Steiner describes a path of enlightenment that can be followed by everyone. It takes as its starting point the faculties that are possessed by all of us: observation, reflection, and thought. The meditative exercises, practiced in seclusion, are a path for the individual 'I'; one that stresses ethical development to protect against the emergence of egoism: 'For every step in spiritual perception, three steps are to be taken in moral development.' Without this aspect we would never become a community. A path is offered that not only leads to 'gnosis' but also to an understanding of the spiritual path as one of service and love to the world and to the very highest principles one that leads to a union of both head and heart and therefore to the promotion of life.

The development of thought in the right way was of particular importance to Rudolf Steiner. In 'Philosophy of Freedom', he further seeks to show that the function of thinking is not to be separated from the spiritual path. He sets out in a logical and clear way how thinking as a spiritual activity can be a gateway to human freedom and perception and consequently a bridge between spirit and matter via its own activity. In this way he was able to bring spirituality into harmony with western intellectuality - seeing this as the essential step in healing the division that had developed in the west between the human and the divine.

The activity of thinking is inextricably linked with the 'I'. Thinking does not occur of its own accord, only with conscious effort. French philosopher Descartes knew this: 'Cogito ergo sum', he concluded: 'I think, therefore I am.'

It is in this activity that I believe we bring the light and being of Christ into our thinking something that will help us to deal with the extraordinary challenges that are being presented to us today.

When Christ spoke to his disciples he spoke directly to their hearts via the parables. This was appropriate then, as the intellect was not as developed as it is now. However we have evolved highly sophisticated left-brain thinking, and this type of thought is increasingly dominating civilization. For this reason it seems appropriate that a spiritual path should include the training of thinking to become more attuned to spiritual realities.

'If you bring forth what is within you, (spirit, knowledge of spirit and therefore self knowledge) what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Sarah Benson has studied and worked in the spiritual for 30 years and wishes to bring whatever she has gleaned to the political/corporate world so that we can better prepare for future generations. This article and others are available at

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The Awakening of Consciousness
by V.M. Samael Aun Weor

It is necessary to know that humanity lives with its consciousness asleep. People work asleep. People walk through the streets asleep. People live and die asleep.

When we come to the conclusion that the entire world lives asleep, then we comprehend the necessity of awakening. We need the awakening of the consciousness. We want the awakening of the consciousness.


The profound sleep in which humanity lives is caused by fascination.

People are fascinated by everything in life. People forget their Selves because they are fascinated. The drunkard in the bar is fascinated with the alcohol, the place, the pleasures, his friends and with women. The vain woman in front of a mirror is fascinated with her own glamour. The rich avaricious person is fascinated with money and possessions. The honest worker in the factory is fascinated with the hard work. The father of the family is fascinated with his children. All human beings are fascinated and sleep profoundly. When driving a car we are astonished when we see people dashing across the roads and streets without paying attention to the danger of the running cars. Others willfully throw themselves under the wheels of cars. Poor people...they walk asleep ... they look like sleepwalkers. They walk asleep, endangering their own lives. Any clairvoyant can see their dreams. People dream with all that keeps them fascinated.


During the physical body's sleep, the ego escapes from it. This departure of the ego is necessary so that the vital body can repair the physical body. However, in the internal worlds we can asseverate that the ego takes its dreams into the internal worlds.

Thus, while in the internal worlds the ego occupies itself with the same things which keep it fascinated in the physical world. Therefore, during a sound sleep we see the carpenter in his carpentry shop, the policeman guarding the streets, the barber in his barbershop, the blacksmith at his forge, the drunkard in the tavern or bar, the prostitute in the house of pleasures, absorbed in lust etc., etc. All these people live in the internal worlds as if they were in the physical world.

Not a single living being during his sleep has the occurrence to ask to himself if whether he is in the physical or astral world. However, those who have asked to themselves such a question during the sleep have awoken in the internal worlds. Then, with amazement, they have been able to study all the marvels of the Superior Worlds.

It is only possible for us to manage to ask such a question to ourselves in the superior worlds during those hours given over to sleep by becoming accustomed to asking ourselves this question from moment to moment during the so-called vigil state. Evidently, during our sleep we repeat everything that we do during the day. Therefore, if during the day we accustom ourselves to asking this question, then, during our nocturnal sleep, while being outside of the body, we, consequently, will repeat the same question to ourselves. Thus, the outcome will be the awakening of the consciousness.

Remembering Oneself

The human being in his fascinated trance does not remember his Self. We must Self-Remember our Selves from moment to moment. We need to Self-Remember our Selves in the presence of every representation that could fascinate us. Let us hold ourselves while in front of any representation and ask ourselves: Where am I? Am I in the physical plane? Am I in the astral plane? Then, give a little jump with the intention of floating within the surrounding atmosphere. It is logical that if you float it is because you are outside the physical body. Thus, the outcome will be the awakening of consciousness.

The purpose of asking this question at every instant, at every moment is with the intention of engraving it within the sub-consciousness, so that it may manifest later during the hours given to sleep, hours when the ego is really outside the physical body. You must know that in the astral plane, things appear just as here in this physical plane. This is why during sleep, and after death, people see everything there in a form very similar to this physical world. This is why they do not even suspect that they are outside their physical body. Therefore, no dead person ever believes himself to have died; because he is fascinated and profoundly asleep.

If the dead had made a practice of remembering themselves from moment to moment when they were alive, if they had struggled against the fascination of the things of the world, the outcome would have been the awakening of their consciousness. They would not dream. They would walk in the internal worlds with awakened consciousness. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can study during the hours of sleep all the marvels of the superior worlds. Whosoever awakens the consciousness lives in the superior worlds as a totally awakened citizen of the Cosmos. One then coexists with the Great Hierophants of the White Lodge.

Whosoever awakens the consciousness can no longer dream; here in this physical plane or in the internal worlds. Whosoever awakens the consciousness stops dreaming. Whosoever awakens the consciousness becomes a competent investigator of the superior worlds. Whosoever awakens consciousness is an illuminated one. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can study at the feet of the Master. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can talk familiarly with the Gods who initiated the dawn of creation. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can remember his innumerable reincarnations. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can consciously attend his own cosmic initiations. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can study in the temples of the Great White Lodge. Whosoever awakens the consciousness can know in the superior worlds how the is the evolution of his Kundalini. Every Perfect Matrimony must awaken the consciousness in order to receive guidance and direction from the White Lodge. In the superior worlds the Masters will wisely guide all those who really love one another. In the superior worlds the Masters give to each one that which one needs for his internal development.

Complementary Practice

Every Gnostic student after waking up from their normal sleep must perform a retrospective exercise based on the process of their sleep, in order to remember all those places they visited during the hours of sleep. We already know that the ego travels a great deal, it goes towards where we have physically been, repeating all that which we have seen and heard.

The Masters instruct their disciples when they are out of the physical body.

Therefore, it is urgent to know how to profoundly meditate and then practise what we have learned during the hours of sleep. It is necessary not to physically move at the time of wakening up because with the movement the astral is agitated and the memories are lost. It is urgent to combine the retrospective exercises with the following mantras: RAOM GAOM. Each word is divided into two syllables. One must accentuate the vowel O. These mantras are for the student what the dynamite is for the miner. Thus, as the miner opens his way through the bowels of the earth with the aid of dynamite, similarly, the student also opens his way into the memories of his sub-consciousness with the aid of these mantras.

Patience and Tenacity

The Gnostic student must be infinitely patient and tenacious because powers cost a great deal. Nothing is given to us for free. Everything has a price. These studies are not for the inconsistent people, nor for people of fragile will. These studies demand infinite faith.

Skeptical people must not come to our studies because occult science is very demanding. The skeptics fail totally. Thus, skeptical people will not succeed in entering the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Four States of Consciousness

The first state of consciousness is called Eikasia.
Eikasia is ignorance, human cruelty, barbarism, exceedingly profound sleep, a brutal and instinctive world, an infra-human state.

The second state of consciousness is Pistis.
Pistis is the world of opinions and beliefs. Pistis is belief, prejudices, sectarianism, fanaticism, theories in which there does not exist any type of direct perception of the Truth. Pistis is that consciousness of the common level of humanity.

The third state of consciousness is Dianoia.
Dianoia is the intellectual revision of beliefs, analysis, conceptual synthesis, cultural-intellectual consciousness, scientific thought etc. Dianoetic thought studies phenomena and establishes laws. Dianoetic thought studies the inductive and deductive systems with the purpose of using them in a profound and clear way.

The fourth state of consciousness is Nous.
Nous is perfect awakened consciousness. Nous is the state of Turiya, profound perfect interior illumination. Nous is legitimate objective clairvoyance. Nous is intuition. Nous is the world of the divine archetypes. Noetic thought is synthetic, Clear, objective, illuminated.

Whosoever reaches the heights of Noetic thought totally awakens consciousness and becomes a Turiya.

The lowest part of man is irrational and subjective and is related with the five ordinary senses.

The highest part of man is the world of intuition and objective spiritual consciousness. In the world of intuition, the archetypes of all things in nature develop.

Only those who have penetrated into the world of objective intuition, only those who have reached the solemn heights of Noetic thought are truly awakened and illuminated.

A true Turiya cannot dream. The Turiya, who has reached the heights of Noetic thought, never goes about saying so, never presumes to be wise; he is extremely simple and humble, pure and perfect.

It is necessary to know that a Turiya is neither a medium, nor a pseudo-clairvoyant, nor a pseudo-mystic, unlike those who nowadays abound like weeds in all schools of spiritual, hermetic, occultist studies, etc.

The state of Turiya is most sublime and is only reached by those who work in the Flaming Forge of Vulcan all their lives. Only the Kundalini can elevate us to the state of Turiya.

It is urgent to know how to meditate profoundly and then to practise Sexual Magic during the whole of our life in order to reach, after many difficult trials, the state of Turiya.

Meditation and Sexual Magic carry us to the heights of Noetic thought.

Neither dreamer nor medium, nor any of those who enter a school of occult teaching can instantaneously achieve the state of Turiya. Unfortunately, many believe that it is as easy as blowing glass in order to make bottles, or like smoking a cigarette, or like getting drunk. Thus we see many people hallucinating, mediums and dreamers, declaring themselves to be clairvoyant Masters, illuminated ones. In all schools, including within the ranks of our Gnostic Movement, those persons who say that they are clairvoyant without really being so are never missing. These are the ones who, based upon their hallucinations and dreams, slander others saying, such a person is fallen; such a fellow is a black magician etc., etc.

It is necessary to advise that the heights of Turiya require beforehand many years of mental exercise and Sexual Magic in the Perfect Matrimony. This means discipline, long and profound study, very strong and profound internal meditation, sacrifice for humanity etc., etc.


As a rule, those who have recently entered Gnosis are full of impatience; they want immediate phenomenal manifestations, instantaneous astral projections, illumination, wisdom, etc.

The reality is another thing. Nothing is given to us for free. Everything has its price. Nothing is attained through curiosity, instantaneously, rapidly. Everything has its process and its development. Kundalini develops, evolves and progresses very slowly within the aura of the Mahachoan. Kundalini has the power of awakening the consciousness. Nevertheless, the process of awakening is slow, gradual, natural, without spectacular, sensational, emotional, and barbaric events. When consciousness already has completely awakened it is not something sensational, or spectacular. It is simply a reality, as natural as a tree that grew slowly, unfolded and developed without sudden leaps or sensational events. Nature is nature. The Gnostic student in the beginning says, "I am dreaming." Later he exclaims, "I am in the astral body, outside the physical body." Later still he obtains Samadhi, ecstasy, and enters the fields of Paradise. In the beginning the manifestations are sporadic, discontinuous, followed by long periods of unconsciousness. Much later, the Igneous Wings give us continuous uninterrupted awakened consciousness.

Excerpted from The Perfect Matrimony - or the Door to Enter into Initiation, first published in 1950.

Samael Aun Weor founded the International Gnostic Movement and authored over 60 books before his transition in 1977. Visit the website that carries on his work at

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