GNOSTICISM— The History of Its Analysis


The reader will be surprised to see modern political thinkers and movements treated under the heading of "gnosticism." Since the state of science in this area is as yet largely unknown to the general public, an introductory explanation will not be unwelcome.

The idea that one of the main currents of European, especially of German, thought is essentially gnostic sounds strange today, but this is not a recent discovery. Until about a hundred years ago the facts of the matter were well known. In 1835 appeared Ferdinand Christian Baur's monumental work Die christliche Gnosis, oder die Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung.

Under the heading "Ancient Gnosticism and Modern Philosophy of Religion," the last part of this work discusses: (i) Böhme's theosophy,(2) Schilling's philosophy of nature, (3) Schleiermacher's doctrine of faith, and (4) Hegel's philosophy of religion. The speculation of German idealism is correctly placed in its context in the gnostic movement since antiquity. Moreover, Baur's work was not an isolated event: It concluded a hundred years of preoccupation with the history of heresy–a branch of scholarship that not without reason developed during the Enlightenment.

I shall mention only Johann Lorenz von Mosheim's encyclopedic Versuch einer unparteiischen gründlichen Ketzergeschichte (2nd edition, 1748) and two works on ancient Gnosticism from Baur's own day, Johann August Neander's Genetische Entwicklung der vornehmsten gnostischen Systeme (1818) and Jacques Matter's Histoire critique du Gnosticisme et de son influence sur les sectes religieuses et philosophiques des six premiers siècles de 1'ère chrétienne (1828). It was well understood that with the Enlightenment and German idealism the gnostic movement had acquired great social significance.

On this issue as on many others, the learning and self-understanding of Western civilization were not submerged until the liberal era, the latter half of the nineteenth century, during the reign of positivism in the sciences of man and society. The submergence was so profound that when the gnostic movement reached its revolutionary phase its nature could no longer be recognized. The movements deriving from Marx and Bakunin, the early activities of Lenin, Sorel's myth of violence, the intellectual movement of neopositivism, the communist, fascist, and national-socialist revolutions–all fell in a period, now fortunately part of the past, when science was at a low point.

Europe had no conceptual tools with which to grasp the horror that was upon her. There was a scholarly study of the Christian churches and sects; there was a science of government, cast in the categories of the sovereign nation-state and its institutions; there were the beginnings of a sociology of power and political authority; but there was no science of the non-Christian, non-national intellectual and mass movements into which the Europe of Christian nation-states was in the process of breaking up. Since in its massiveness this new political phenomenon could not be disregarded, a number of stopgap notions were coined to cope with it. There was talk of neopagan movements, of new social and political myths, or of mystiques politiques. I, too, tried one of these ad hoc explanations in a little book on "political religions."

. . . . The research on ancient Gnosticism has a complex history of more than two hundred years. For this development one should consult the historical surveys in Wilhelm Bousset's Die Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (1907) and Hans Jonas's Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (1934; 1954). For the problems of Gnosticism itself, see both these works and Die Gnosis (1924; 4th edition, 1955) by Hans Leisegang. Gilles Quispel's Gnosis als Weltreligion (1951) is a concise introduction by one of the foremost authorities.[ FN ]

Under the influence of a deepened understanding of Gnosticism and its connections with Judaism and Christianity, a new interpretation of European intellectual history and of modern politics has been developing. For example, Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937), the first volume of which was reissued in 1947 under the title Prometheus, helps to clarify German history since the eighteenth century. The parallel work on French history is L'Homme révolté (1951) by Albert Camus.

And the interpretation of intellectual history that forms the basis for my present essay has moreover been strongly influenced by Henri de Lubac's Drame de 1'humanisme athée (2d edition, 1945) [ The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Riley (1950)]. Jacob Taubes's Abendländische Eschatologie (1947) is important for reestablishing the historical continuity of Gnosticism from antiquity through the Middle Ages down to the political movements of modern times. Indispensable to any attempt to understand political sectarianism from the eleventh century to the sixteenth century is the extensive presentation of material in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957; 2d edition, 1961). Finally, my own studies on modern political Gnosticism may be found in The New Science of Politics (1952).

FN.   Since the original presentation of this essay, there has appeared a valuable comprehensive introduction to the whole subject by Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1958), 2d ed. (Boston, 1963)[ Back to text. ]

CW VOL 5,
Science, Politics and Gnosticism
Ch 1, Introduction
pp 251-253.

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