. . . . The Persian Empire is followed by the conquests of Alexander, the Diadochian empires, the expansion of the Roman Empire, and the creation of the Parthian and Sassanian empires. The collapse of the ancient empires of the East, the loss of independence for Israel and the Hellenic and Phoenician city-states, the population shifts, the deportations and enslavements, and the interpenetration of cultures reduce men who exercise no control over the proceedings of history to an extreme state of forlornness in the turmoil of the world, of intellectual disorientation, of material and spiritual insecurity.
The loss of meaning that results from the breakdown of institutions, civilizations, and ethnic cohesion evokes attempts to regain an understanding of the meaning of human existence in the given conditions of the world. Among these efforts, which vary widely in depth of insight and substantive truth, are to be found: the Stoic reinterpretation of man (to whom the polis had become meaningless) as the polites (citizen) of the cosmos; the Polybian vision of a pragmatic ecumene destined to be created by Rome; the mystery religions; the Heliopolitan slave cults; the Hebrew apocalyptic; Christianity; and Manichaeism. And in this sequence, as one of the most grandiose of the new formulations of the meaning of existence, belongs Gnosticism.
Of the profusion of gnostic experiences and symbolic expressions, one feature may be singled out as the central element in this varied and extensive creation of meaning: the experience of the world as an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the other world of his origin. "Who has cast me into the suffering of this world?" asks the "Great Life" of the gnostic texts, which is also the "first, alien Life from the worlds of light." It is an alien in this world and this world is alien to it. "This world was not made according to the desire of the Life." "Not by the will of the Great Life art thou come hither." Therefore the question, "Who conveyed me into the evil darkness?" and the entreaty, "Deliver us from the darkness of this world into which we are flung." The world is no longer the well-ordered, the cosmos, in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is it the Judaeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos.
For him the world has become a prison from which he wants to escape: "The wretched soul has strayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders around without a way out. . . . It seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out." Therefore the confused, plaintive question asked of the Great Life, "Why didst thou create this world, why didst thou order the tribes here from thy midst?" From this attitude springs the programmatic formula of Gnosticism, which Clement of Alexandria recorded: Gnosis is "the knowledge of who we were and what we became, of where we were and whereinto we have been flung, of whereto we are hastening and wherefrom we are redeemed, of what birth is and what rebirth." The great speculative mythopoems of Gnosticism revolve around the questions of origin, the condition of having-been-flung, escape from the world, and the means of deliverance.
In the quoted texts the reader will have recognized Hegel's alienated spirit and Heidegger's flungness ( Geworfenheit ) of human existence. This similarity in symbolic expression results from a homogeneity in experience of the world. And the homogeneity goes beyond the experience of the world to the image of man and salvation with which both the modern and the ancient Gnostics respond to the condition of "flungness" in the alien world. If man is to be delivered from the world, the possibility of deliverance must first be established in the order of being.
In the ontology of ancient Gnosticism this is accomplished through faith in the "alien," "hidden" God who comes to man's aid, sends him his messengers, and shows him the way out of the prison of the evil God of this world (be he Zeus or Yahweh or one of the other ancient father-gods). In modern Gnosticism it is accomplished through the assumption of an absolute spirit that in the dialectical unfolding of consciousness proceeds from alienation to consciousness of itself; or through the assumption of a dialectical-material process of nature that in its course leads from the alienation resulting from private property and belief in God to the freedom of a fully human existence; or through the assumption of a will of nature that transforms man into superman.
Within the ontic possibility, however, gnostic man must carry on the work of salvation himself. Now, through his psyche ("soul") he belongs to the order, the nomos, of the world; what impels him toward deliverance is the pneuma ("spirit"). The labor of salvation,therefore, entails the dissolution of the worldly constitution of the psyche and at the same time the gathering and freeing of the powers of the pneuma.