NOTES ON GNOSTICISM — PART IV
Anti-Modern Mysticism: E.M. Cioran & C.G. Jung

March 1991By Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. The above article is part of a series on gnosticism. Part I appeared in our October 1986 issue, Part II in our December 1990 issue, and Part III in our January-February 1991 issue. Part V will appear in our April 1991 issue.

The ideology of modern science is so heavily colored by the gnostic spirit that it may surprise us to find gnostic influences in anti-modern ideologies as well, ranging from those which seek a “humanist” alternative to scientific materialism to those which condemn humanism as an important component of modernism in its own right. The gnostic impulse is many-sided, adaptable to a great variety of conflicting purposes. It appeals to those who want the consolations of religion without its moral demands — to those who believe that religion can be rescued from the corrosive effects of science once we under­stand that man is always evolving higher and higher forms of consciousness and that science itself is only a stage in this evolution, destined to be superseded and eventually incorporated into a new synthesis that will reconcile science and religion. But it also appeals to much tougher thinkers who entertain no illusions about the reconciliation of science and reli­gion, who reject the dogma of progress in all its forms, and who take a bleak view of the human prospect.

As an element in the modern critique of modernity, gnosticism can be found in combi­nation with the darkest pessimism and the most simple-minded optimism and with a va­riety of positions between these extremes. Its emphasis on the spark of divinity in mankind can give comfort to those who need to believe in “human potential,” but its description of human life as a falling-away from an earlier state of perfection can easily wither every comforting thought and leave us in a mood of utter dejection. Gnosticism always hovers be­tween wild hope and despair; perhaps it is this attraction to extremes, more than anything else, that makes it so congenial to the 20th-century temperament.

Gnosticism not only spans a considerable range of moods, it also ranges from highly refined speculation to the crudest kind of superstition. In the Hellenistic world, it found expression both in the works of a serious thinker like Marcion and in the megalomaniac fantasies of Simon Magus. Today the range of gnostic thought extends from the trenchant aphorisms of E.M. Cioran, arguably one of the most important religious thinkers of recent times, to the flagrant commercialism and cut-rate spirituality of the New Age movement. On the one hand, gnosticism commends itself as the one form of spirituality that has no need of the illusion that we live in a meaning­ful universe — the only religion, accordingly, that can withstand the scientific disenchant­ment of the world. On the other hand, it commends itself as the agency of re-enchant­ment. If it appeals to those who take the news of God’s death seriously and who understand its inevitable sequel, the end of man, gnosti­cism also appeals to those who fear the “de­humanizing” effects of science but still cling to the hope that “perfectibility into the super­man” remains the goal of evolution, as Geddes MacGregor writes in his book Gnosis: A Renaissance in Christian Thought. What the world needs, according to MacGregor, is a humanistic religion stripped of “legalisms and literalisms.” The “obvious allies” of a resur­gent humanism, as MacGregor sees it, are the “mystical, gnostic and theosophical move­ments that spiritually leaven every institutional religion.” These movements, of course, will never win the allegiance of the multitude; but “all religion…presupposes a moral and spiritu­al elitism,” and the “evolutionary path we are called upon to take…is likely to be not for the many but for the few.”

The following discussion makes no claim to represent a comprehensive survey of contemporary gnosticism. Since Hans Jonas has called attention to the gnostic elements in 20th-century existentialism, it makes no reference to Heidegger, Sartre, or their followers, who confronted the same “metaphysical situa­tion,” as Jonas puts it, that gave rise to an­cient gnosticism: the “estrangement between man and the world, the loss of the idea of a kindred cosmos.” My discussion aims only to show the range of gnosticizing thought and to elaborate on the qualities that make a gnostic perspective congenial to a great variety of writers who have nothing else in common except a disinclination to leave the final word on man’s fate to science.


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