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Gnosis and gnosticism, theosophy and theosophism

It is a fact that too many authors -- we would almost say: general opinion -- attribute to gnosis what is proper to Gnosticism and to other counterfeits of the sophia perennis, and moreover make no distinction between the latter and the most freakish movements, such as spiritualism, theosophism and the pseudo-esoterisms that saw the light of day in the twentieth century. It is particularly regrettable that these confusions are taken seriously by most theologians, who obviously have an interest in entertaining the worst opinion possible concerning gnosis; now the fact that an imposture necessarily imitates a good, since otherwise it could not even exist, does not authorize charging this good with all the sins of the imitation.

In reality, gnosis is essentially the path of the intellect and hence of intellection; the driving force of this path is above all intelligence, and not will and sentiment as is the case in the Semitic monotheistic mysticisms, including average Sufism. Gnosis is characterized by its recourse to pure metaphysics: the distinction between Atma and Maya and the consciousness of the potential identity between the human subject, jivatma, and the Divine Subject, Paramatma. The path comprises on the one hand "comprehension", and on the other "concentration"; hence doctrine and method.

As for Gnosticism, whether it arises in a Christian, Moslem or other climate, it is a fabric of more or less disordered speculations, often of Manichean origin; and it is a mythomania characterized by a dangerous mixture of exoteric and esoteric concepts. Doubtless it contains symbolisms that are not without interest -- the contrary would be astonishing -- but it is said that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"; it could just as well be said that it is paved with symbolisms. (To Have a Center, p. 67-68, chapter Gnosis is Not Just Anything).

For too many people the gnostic is someone who, feeling illumined from within rather than by Revelation, takes himself to be superhuman and believes that for him everything is permissible; one will accuse of gnosis any political monster who is superstitious or who has vague interests in the occult while believing himself to be invested with a mission in the name of some aberrant philosophy. In a word, in common opinion gnosis equals "intellectual pride", as if this were not a contradiction in terms, pure intelligence coinciding precisely with objectivity, which by definition excludes all subjectivism, hence especially pride which is its least intelligent and coarsest form.

If there exists a "Gnosticist" or pseudo-Gnostic satanism, there also exists an anti-gnosis Satanism, and this is the comfortable and dishonest bias that sees gnosis wherever the devil is; it is to this mania -- which strictly speaking pertains to the "sin against the Holy Ghost"-- that may be applied Christ's injunction not to cast pearls before swine nor to give what is holy to the dogs. For if in the human order there are pearls and holiness, these are certainly to be found on the side of the intellect, which is, according to Meister Eckhart, aliquid increatum et increabile, hence something divine, and this is precisely what annoys and disturbs the partisans of pious superficiality and militant fanaticism. (Roots of the Human Condition, p.11).

The word 'gnosis'... refers to supra-rational , and thus purely intellective, knowledge of metacosmic realities. Now this knowledge cannot be reduced to the 'gnosticism' of history; it would then be necessary to say that Ibn 'Arabi or Shankara were Alexandrine gnostics; in short, gnosis cannot be held responsible for every association of ideas or every abuse of terminology. It is humanly admissible not to believe in gnosis; what is quite inadmissible in anyone claiming to understand the subject is to include under this heading things having no relation of species or level with the reality in question, whatever the value attributed to that reality. In place of 'gnosis' the Arabic term ma'rifah or the Sanskrit tern jnana could just as well have been used, but a Western term seems more normal in a book written in a Western language; there is also the term 'theosophy', but his has even more unfortunate associations, while the term 'knowledge' is too general, unless its meaning is made specific by an epithet or by the context. What must be emphasized and made clear is that the term 'gnosis' is used by us in its etymological and universal sense and therefore cannot be reduced to meaning merely the Graeco-Oriental syncretism of later classical times,(1) still less can it be applied to some pseudo-religious pseudo-yogic or even merely literary fantasy.(2) (Understanding Islam, p.115).

(1) Even though we do not reduce the meaning of this word to that syncretism we nevertheless admit for clear and historical reasons that the heretics conventionally called Gnostics can properly be so called. Their first fault lay in misinterpreting gnosis in a dogmatical mode, this giving rise to errors and a sectarianism incompatible with a sapiential perspective: despite this the indirect connection with genuine gnosis can, if need be, justify the use of the term Gnostic in this case. (Understanding Islam, p.115).

(2) As is more and more often done since psychoanalysts (in the widest sense of the term) have arrogated to themselves a monopoly in all that concerns the inner life, where they confuse together the most diverse and irreconcilable things in a common process of leveling and relativization. (Understanding Islam, p.115).

Here it is once again appropriate ... to define the difference between a heresy which is extrinsic, hence relative to a given orthodoxy, and another which is intrinsic, hence false in itself as also with respect to all orthodoxy or to Truth as such. To simplify the matter, we may limit ourself to noting that the first type of heresy manifests a spiritual archetype -- in a limited manner, no doubt, but nonetheless efficacious -- whereas the second is merely human work and in consequence based solely on its own productions;(1) and this decides the entire question. To claim that a "pious" spiritist is assured of salvation is meaningless, for in total heresies there is no element that can guarantee posthumous beatitude, even though -- apart from all question of belief -- a man can always be saved for reasons which escape us; but he is certainly not saved by his heresy. (Christianity/Islam, Essays on Esoteric Ecumenicism, p. 16-17).

(1) Such as Mormonism, Bahaism, the Ahmadism of Kadyan, and all the "new religions" and other pseudo-spiritualities which proliferate in today's world.

  1. Gnosis and gnosticism, theosophy and theosophism
  2. Modern Vedantism
  3. Psychic powers, miracles, ecstasy, apparitions, visions
  4. Neo-yogism, "realizationism"
  5. Occultism, spiritism, fetishism, paganism and decadent traditions
  6. The psychological Imposture, psychoanalysis
  7. Modernist Zenism