The Gnostics were the arch-rebels of Christian society from the second to the Fourth Century. The Pauline Christians of Rome set out to crush them and to hand over an obedient and conformist church to the Roman Emperor. These things they did, as Constantine is our witness.
In those early days there were some 80 recorded varieties of Christianity round the Mediterranean, each one doubtless aspiring to come out on top. Most of them perished. The Copts still survive in Egypt and Ethiopia and there is a residual presence of Nestorians in Iraq.
The Gnostics were a special case because there was never intended to be a Gnostic Church as such – just as there has never been any Anarchist Party in modern times. Gnosticism was a form of Christianity that any could adopt as their own. Its very nature made it flexible and capable of any number of different forms. Some of them turned out to be distinctly weird; but that is a secondary matter. The heart of the matter was of real substance.
Gnosis means knowledge – knowledge of the Father. And the Father is not the God worshipped by Jews and Pauline Christians. Jehovah or the Demiurge was, to the Gnostics, a mixed-up lower divinity who made the world and made a mess of it – witness natural disasters, sickness, war, starvation and all the other horrors that we are heir to.
The Father was beyond all that (he has various names like Elohim) – he is the very ground of our being, to know him is to know the eternal and the infinite and that knowledge is gnosis. It is the direct personal perception of the divine that makes nonsense of all the absurd theory of the church – Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Trinity and salvation through Christ. Forget it. Christ was an exemplar, a teacher, a messenger, that’s all. You can imagine how that was received in Rome! Simon Magus (magus means sorcerer) was suitably denounced as such in the Acts of the Apostles. And Simon was a founding father of gnosticism.
The Gnostic Gospel of Phillip: “You saw the spirit, you became the spirit. You saw the Father, you shall become the Father. You see yourself and what you see you shall become. Whoever achieves gnosis becomes no longer a Christian, but the Christ.”
What price then the authority of the book and the priest? And from the same gospel, JC is on record as saying: “If you bring forth what is in you, what you shall bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Jung writes in Man and His Symbols: “Gnosis for man is to be in the place of the presence and revelation of Being. The Da of Dasein (as in Heidegger) is itself brought out of concealment into disclosure. Dasein is the truth of being, hence ‘to see a world in a grain of sand… ‘”
And so we are on to Blake, the arch-gnostic of the modern world. He totally rejected the church, the priests and all their works (although he had a soft spot for Wesley) because they ignored the foundations of the human spirit in favour of dogmas, moralities, rituals and their own authority. He never knowingly went to church, i. e. he was christened in St. James, Piccadilly (still the same font today), and churched into the cemetery at Bunhill Fields.
Following Simon Magus came Menander, Saturninus, Basilides and Valentinus, not forgetting the author of the fourth Gospel, which has distinct gnostic overtones and is not entirely respectable as a result. They were heavily persecuted by their fellow ‘Christians.’ In the year 367 or thereabouts Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria, denounced all “apocryphal books and heresies” and the Gnostics of Upper Egypt buried 52 of their codices (a codex is simply a bound book rather than a scroll) in a large jar near the village of Nag Hammadi. And there they were dug up by a local peasant collecting bird lime as fertiliser in 1945. They are written in Coptic, an Egyptian language in Roman script. They had an extraordinary history thereafter but came through it, and they are now available, in full, in an English translation.
The Medieval Sequel
As we know, good ideas do not lie down and die. Driven out of the Mediterranean arena by Roman Pauline Christianity, gnosticism survived in Bulgaria as the Bogomils. Then towards the height of the middle ages (the eleventh to the Thirteenth Century) it spread down through Macedonia, Thrace to northern Italy and then to Provence in the south of France. In Provence, round Toulouse, it became the focal point of a new kind of society that was avowedly Christian but had no connection with Rome. The Pope and the great lords of France decided to crush it by force. The Albigensian Crusades of 1209 to 1229 drowned Gnosticism in its own blood. The very Inquisition was invented to ensure its dispatch.
It was a dynamic era. After the Albigensians, the Cathari, the Joachimites and the spiritual wing of the Franciscans came the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Beghards and the Beguines, and their political context was that of the titanic struggle between the Pope and the Emperor, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.
There were two classes in gnosticism, the perfecti who had achieved gnosis and who lived lives of extreme asceticism, they were vegetarian and celibate, the spiritual capital of society and a source of strength to the credentes, the ordinary believers who could only join the perfecti on their deathbeds.
The gnostics were part of a vast European Christian underground, the faith of the underdog, the saint and the revolutionary. It broke out again in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries through the Anabaptists, the Hutterites, the Mennonites, the Family of Love, Jacob Boehme and finally the Quakers. We think of Gerrard Winstanley in connection with the diggers, his role as a gnostic prophet has yet to be properly recognised.
And now we are into yet another gnostic renaissance. Simone Weil is a case in point. In a recent review of a book about her Peter Levi wrote: “She was a little like Tolstoy, with the same indestructible attraction and power to annoy. Lenin she despised. She was an anarchist activist, a severe individualist, an opponent of all totalitarian states and yet a genuine utopian. To Simone Weil gnosticism appealed greatly.” (The Independent, 20th January 1990)
Some further reading:
- Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Pelican £3.95
- Tobias Churton, Gnostics, Weidenfeld & Nicholson £10.95
- The Nag Hammadi Library in English, E.J.Brill, Leiden.
- Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Beacon Press, Boston, 1959
- Robert Avens, The New Gnosis, Spring Publications, Texas.
- Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, Harper & Row, 1985, – for specialists.
Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.