Review – Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion”

Hans Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity” (1958) – It’s a commonplace, and a true one, that a lot of the tropes we assign to villains in fiction coincide with stereotypes that Christians often hold of Jews: sneaky, treacherous, cunning, possessed of a combination of physical weakness and ugliness with danger and a certain allure. I’d add another set of villainy-tropes that map onto an essentially religious divide, and these are associated with Gnosticism, or anyway, European culture’s memory of Gnosticism. Secret cults, underground in both social and geological senses, dedicated to esoteric (but not overly complicated, so as to overwhelm the reader!) belief systems at odds with orthodoxy, intimations of weird sex and other lifestyle practices, convinced something is essentially wrong with the world and, moreover, that maybe we ought to act accordingly… we see plenty of all that in bad guys in fiction, film, comic books, etc.

We don’t know that much about Gnosticism because its opponents, the Christian Church (this was before it split off into Catholic and Orthodox branches and well before the Reformation), eradicated pretty much all Gnostic groups from the face of the Earth. For centuries, most of what we “knew” about them came from whatever inquisitors chose to jot down about their victims before destroying them. About a decade before philosopher Hans Jonas began writing this book, the Nag Hammadi corpus, discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, had started filtering out, providing us with almost all of the direct primary sources on Gnosticism we have. Seeing as Nag Hammadi was just one respectable cache of documents, it was a huge find but not comprehensive. We’re still missing a lot, texts but also, crucially, context to a lot of what we do have about Gnosticism. 

Arguably, the whole category of “Gnosticism” is more of an artifact of orthodox Christian persecution, the ideas and practices they lumped together as they proscribed them, than of anything having to do with the beliefs of those they persecuted. Indeed, the literature these days seems to be in a place where they almost regard the term “Gnostic” as more trouble than it’s worth, a lump where there ought to be splits (admittedly, I get this impression mostly from one (1) podcast, but hey, I’m a modernist). 

Well… I gotta admit… there is a part of me that thinks that the “reception history” of the Gnostics is almost more important than whether or not they were truly a unitary group. Note, I do think it’s important to try to understand what they actually believed. But… they’re gone. Gone, gone, gone. All those sects with all those odd and vaguely sinister-sounding names – Valentinians, Basilideans, Sethites, Marcionites, Manicheans, on and on – are gone, and even if some internet weirdos say they’re going to adopt their beliefs, get the band back together again, it’s not the same. In most respects, Gnosticism is more important as a shadow of Christianity than it is in its own right. 

Hans Jonas was a student of Heidegger’s in pre-WWII Germany, one of a group of Jewish students of the loathsome dwarf master and who went on to big careers, including Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse (I read a book by a skillful but pedantic intellectual historian yelping about how they were illiberal, illiberal all, tainted by the master! “Well, duh! Who cares?” It was the nineties, or anyway the eternal nineties of the liberal mind…). He left when the Nazis took power, swore he’d only come back to Germany as part of an army to defeat them- and lived up to his promise as part of the Jewish Brigade in the British army. He may have denounced Heidegger, but he didn’t denounce all of the dimensions of the philosophical explorations Heidegger called for, encouraged his students towards. 

Practically speaking, this means that Jonas makes much broader analyses than is common in ancient history today, and one gets the idea was becoming common back then, too. Thank god! Yes, there’s a need for the cautious, carefully source-bound histories that are now de rigeur, the more so the further you get from the presence. But there are readability and relevance questions involved, and history that’s too tightly tied to primary sources — especially when there’s not a lot of them in a given area, and some of them of indirect relevance — risks turning into pointless antiquarianism.

In my mind, that impassioned but rigorous — really, more impassioned and rigorous, in the best of this sort of work, the two don’t detract from each other — multidimensional analysis that characterizes the best German (and German-inspired) historical thought is probably the best approach we moderns can take to the history of Gnosticism (outside of straight up fiction approaches, maybe). Jonas begins with a discussion of the Greek Mediterranean in which Gnosticism arises, a meeting place of cultures from India to Spain and which participants reached well beyond. Among other things, the Greek Mediterranean became the cockpit where competing ideas not just about religious content, but what religious form — what religion constitutes, how it regulates action and thought — would look like for vast swathes of the human planet going forward.

Christianity was one product of this setting. So too was its shadow, Gnosticism (Gnosticism deserves to be seen as Christianity’s shadow, much more than the bad joke of Satanism, half of which is just misappropriated, garbled Gnostic ideas and tropes anyway), even as Gnostic movements would become important in places well away from the Mediterranean. Beyond whatever errors antiquarians might ding him for, Jonas comes closest to intellectual traps when he ascribes ideas as uniquely belonging to given cultures- this a Greek idea, this Persian, that Babylonian, etc. But by and large, he avoids essentializing, which you’d fucking well better in the insane stewpot of peoples and cultures that was the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at the time. Rather, better to think of these ideas as forms, structures of thought molded in given environments that came into contact with each other, combined, re-formed.

Then we get that favorite German intellectual pastime: classification. We go through the various Gnostic subgroups based on their attitudes towards where their central concern — error, imperfection, evil — comes from. Persian-inflected Gnosticism, like Manichaeism, which understands evil as primordial, a darkness always coexisting with good, what Jonas sees as Syriac Gnosticisms which hold that a germ of imperfection comes from iterative layers of creation by increasingly imperfect spiritual creators, Marcion’s Christian-ish Gnosticism, etc etc. 

Jonas doesn’t stint from showing off what primary sources were available, giving us bits of Gnostic poetry, scripture, and lore from Nag Hammadi or from Christian polemicist accounts. And what lore it is! Alongside the questions the Gnostics asked — pretty fundamental ones that Christian apologists, to my mind, really don’t answer that well — it’s the lore that has attracted such figures as Jorge Luis Borges, whose essay on Basilides the False probably helped launch more interest in Gnosticism than any other document of the twentieth century. What Jonas calls “Syriac Gnosticism” especially had colorful, strange, uncanny stories attached, made all the more dreamlike by how fragmentary they, and our knowledge of their contexts, are and is. Multiple layers of creation guarded by the spawn of a blind idiot god, where you needed to memorize thousands of passwords to let your soul ascend to its true home beyond anything like the ken of this world; the incarnation of Wisdom as a woman tempted into creating a fallen material world out of a desire to imitate her impossibly remote, perfect father, only to fall further and further into the world’s degradation (including incarnations as Helen of Troy and as a Tyrian sex worker) who must be rescued and restored to free humanity from this false, wicked world…

Because, let’s face it- how the Gnostics fit in to the world of late antiquity, what happened to them, all the ins and outs and specifics… they’re important, no doubt, and we should encourage work that is more granular than what Jonas does, attentive to material culture, linguistic analysis, etc etc, stuff that Jonas either didn’t have access to or care to do in his broad analysis of Gnosticism. But unless we’re gonna invent time travel any time soon, those gritty details are less important for the general historical writer than the things the Gnostics represent. There’s the aspect where they represent the dark, the shadowy, the other, the villainous, all those tropes we talked about earlier… but there’s also a way in which they articulate, arguably more than any other cultural force in western, maybe in human, history something important. Common to all Gnostic faiths is the idea that this world is not our home- that there is something essentially wrong not (just) with people, but with Creation. Christianity puts original sin on a lady, an apple, and a snake- Gnostics ask the obvious question: why ladies, snakes, apples, etc., if an all-powerful all-good being had a say in the matter? Why any of this? Something stinks. 

To me, this suspicion is an ineradicable part of the human inheritance. We can imagine other worlds, and we can reflect on this world, and we can see gaps between the two, for better and for worse. Gnosticism is, whatever else it is as a specific phenomenon of Mediterranean antiquity, the expression of that gap… and you can argue that Christianity was the channeling of the thoughts that result from the gap into a set of channels that various people understood as theologically and, dare I say it, socially and politically acceptable, shutting off dangerous lines of enquiry. It’s way too much of a stretch to attribute real revolutionary potential to Gnosticism. As it existed, it seemed to oscillate between ascetic withdrawal and hedonistic excess. Google contemporary Gnostics and you’re in the world of new age nonsense, a notch or two away from QAnon, complete with online grifters- and there was always a carnival barker element to Gnosticism, as seen in the career of Simon Magus. 

Amusingly, one major right-wing thinker of the twentieth century, Eric Voegelin, did try to attribute the rise of more or less every ideology to the left of, say, Alexis de Tocqueville, to a sub rosa embrace of Gnosticism! But pay any sustained attention to what actually successful revolutionaries are like, and you don’t see much Gnosticism there- which, indeed, seems to disappoint some of my more… aesthetically-inclined friends. For the revolutionary, like it or not, we’re stuck with this world. And part of this world are the feelings and thoughts Gnosticism expressed, and a truly ruthless criticism of all existing has to take it into account. You’ll find few better ways to take it on board, in my opinion, than reading Jonas. *****

Review – Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion”

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