Blank Sky Philosophy, Part One
The words the ancient Gnostics used were, generally speaking, philosophical words, ontological words, and mythological words. They belie the vertex of Judaic academia and Hellenistic philosophy. This tradition of linguistic and philosophical inventiveness, this arsenal of descriptors, is the only real mainstay, the only thing that has survived all the iterations and permutations of Gnostic thought in the world.
The “Aeons” of the ancients were concepts, qualities, periods of time, and, to some degree, entities. But they were not deities. Above all, this multiplicity of forms was a way of demonstrating that the concepts they spoke of transcended the limitations of current ideas. At the core of these things was not god, not an entity with will and a creative drive. Rather, it was a high concept, beyond limitation, the Apeiron, the Pleroma. It didn’t care about us; it was simply a meta-formation of the ultimate reality which interacted with itself to produce predictable reactions. It was, essentially, a substance, or force, despite the metaphysical trappings, which underwent chemical reactions – like any star or nebula. The emanationist system of description was largely about breaking down those hard lines between things; it was a manner of conveying ontological complexity.
The thing that seems to be missing from most scholarship on the ancient Gnostics is how remarkably modern they were. This isn’t because of academic laziness – it’s because historians make assumptions about intent, about the level of complexity available to a particular people at a particular time. They assume the Gnostics meant it literally, even when a reading of pertinent materials without such tethers reveals as obvious a set of approaches and principles that put any such limited interpretation to bed.
The Gnostics also understood myth. It’s passé now, in the age of Joseph Campbell, to point out that mythology and religion serve purposes in culture; that their language, their ritual behavior, their communities, all fill roles in our world. It’s equally tired to paraphrase Jacob Grimm and point out that folklore and stories have similar roles to fill. But the ancient Gnostics didn’t live in our world. They lived in a time where these ideas were not widely known – indeed, according to historians, they weren’t known at all. But, while they may not have been expressed in a way we would recognize today as academic, it’s right there to see in the texts themselves.
The process of constant re-appraisal – rewriting the old myths, “remixing” prominent religious writings of the day– this was not an invention of Philip K. Dick. He was following the patterns laid down by the ancient Gnostics when he approached his Exegesis as a constantly morphing work which was about the search for truth more than any definable answer. Intrinsic to this process is irreverence – there were no “sacred” scriptures. That Gnostic culture not only allowed, but invited, its members to rework the texts which lay at the core of their beliefs is a testament to just how little they held those texts as perfect or permanent. The ideas in them were open to debate, to reinterpretation, to reinvention. This is what allowed this strikingly modern philosophy to thrive for as long as it did. It’s also what led to its downfall. That openness and freedom from doctrine and dogma meant an internal weakness that could be used to gradually lead away from those core ideas and into simple religion.
Over time, to make a very long story very short, the inevitable draw of religiosity pulled this utterly modern philosophical movement into merely another cult of Christ, who had been initially recognized as a great Gnostic teacher, but who was certainly not worshiped as divine – such a notion would have been explicitly un-Gnostic. Now, one seldom hears about Gnosticism in any form unless it is routed through Jesus.
One can strip out everything divine, everything “supernatural,” certainly everything Christian, and be left with a startling cosmology. I am aware that there is debate about the meaning of the word “religion;” I understand that, in some respects, a system of thought that includes a cosmology can be considered a religion. I am referring to systems which involve belief in or worship of one or more deities, specific moral codes, and public/group expression. We are so indoctrinated by religion that the notion of a system of belief or thought that is purely cosmological is simply a null concept, at least in the west. At best, the religious language is a semantic cushion, to lead into the difficult philosophical implications that Gnosticism imparts.