Thursday, January 26, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic (Draft 2)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming

E.C. Quodlibet

Every philosophical theory is an attempt to come to grips with a spiritual impasse, a fact of experience and of being that underlies it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of more and more radical conceptual responses to what is a fundamentally non-conceptual realm. With each theoretical revolution, with each hasty overturning and each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of the disearnest and the merely abstract, until finally it makes itself inextricable and has established an irrefutable and even singular hegemony, whether institutional or on the level of self-discipline.

The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and probably of Eastern, too, but for now the thesis must be restricted pending further researches), can be summed up in one word: Gnosticism. To be clear, Gnosticism is not directly the impasse itself; it is merely a doctrine that boldly stared this impasse in the face. This impasse qua spiritual fact of experience is nothing other than dualism.

The common man will stare and blink, while the self-sure followers of so-called enlightened opinion will raise a great cry of displeasure—oh! To hear such dreadful news! But worst of all, and most unforgivable by far, is that the professional philosophers will smugly sneer, as if to say: “Gnosticism? A system of unjustifiable dualities… and religious ones at that? Have we not already overcome such a failure of thought? Is this not rather a dogmatic distortion of reality?” While I gladly and perhaps morbidly acquiesce to life in the madhouse, it is common courtesy (all will surely agree) that the offending message at least be conveyed at some length, if not taken entirely seriously.

These facts justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic


What allows for the assertion of this fundamental fact of dualism? Dualism itself, first of all, allows for a number of manifestations, not all of which are equivalent translations of one another: mind and body, spirit and matter, infinite and finite, self and other, &c. These oppositions are, in fact, embedded deeply in the structure of language as such, not this or that language, but in all structuring activity whatsoever.

Dualism is the transposition of this logico-grammatical structure of binary opposition onto the metaphysical plane. This is not an activity that we necessarily set out to engage in, nor is the metaphysical aspect necessitated by that logico-grammatical structure (take for instance certain “primitive” peoples, who, notwithstanding many structural similarities, have a widely divergent lived metaphysics). There is a moment of contingency in the relation between language and the underpinnings of reality we take to be constituted on the basis of that language. At the same time, this is different from the way we represent that constituted reality via language, this last representation also being subject to great contingency, so great in fact that most systems and concepts of philosophy can be produced in the interval.

Above all, then, we act and experience these binary oppositions, often in spite of philosophical or scientific beliefs; the two registers are fundamentally different in both orientation and source. It is the philosophical gambit that this third register can wrap back around and overwrite the second, or in some cases even the first one (not that these registers are the only ones, nor are they strictly hierarchical; but the model suffices for now).

The problem, as Wilhelm Reich knew too well, is the issue of meaning. Can we interpret away that which is fundamentally not of the order of interpretation, that which lies beyond discourse? Of course, I do not claim that philosophy necessarily sees itself as doing this, but there is a certain type of philosophy obsessed with a kind of “overcoming” that justifies the current critique. The problem of those other, anti-dualistic (as distinct from non-dualist) philosophical projects is their lack of self-awareness of dualism as a problem or fact in the first place; we leave them therefore to one side.


There is something dastardly, something sinister and disconcerting, in the fact of duality; this is why it is an “impasse”. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? Indeed, something is amiss; there ought not be two. Ought there then be one? The impasse begs to be overcome.

Theoretically, a one is already a two, and therein we have three; by means of this can we prove any metaphysical doctrine at all as we like, discovering structures up even to our very own favorite numbers (that is to say, arbitrarily high). Lacan was partial to the number 3, as was Hegel (or was it 4 in the end?), whereas Descartes preferred 2; those who have preferred 1 are too numerous to name. Crowley has a unique solution to the issue.

But more important than these theoretical considerations is the question of how these numbers come to be posited. It is typically in response to a primary datum, that is, that of binary opposition, that these theoretical positions are taken. It is in order to do away with the problems and contradictions brought about by dualist metaphysics that, for example, Hegel requires the third dialectical moment of unity in difference. Hindu scholastic philosophy (that is, taken as an exercise of textual commentary and not as a spiritual practice; this can of course only be done in earnest by those unfamiliar with the tradition), to take another example, dissolves the transient and contradictory nature of self and not-self into the unity of Brahman. A system of philosophy that did not at any point posit a duality as at least provisionally fundamental would not yet even be a philosophy, but would remain a dogmatic theology.

But do these theories fix our problem of dualism? In point of fact: No, they merely add a further, conceptual layer atop the bedrock of dualist perception. By thought alone, that which is beyond thought cannot be overcome. Philosophy reveals its hidden idealism and blind faith in itself when these facts are understood; and yet, in the name of a true idealism of spirit, we must provide a corrective. We must begin from the 2, but where are we to go from there, and with what method are we to travel? Let us return now to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.


The Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the soul (or spirit, depending on translation and tradition). Only by gnosis, an activity of the deep Self that freed the soul from the material bonds of time and space – with the grace of God of course – could one hope to escape. Determination is here taken to be evil, and thus we have a rather sophisticated understanding of the intersections of embodiment and freedom. The Gnostics took their dualism more seriously than the Neoplatonists, who for their part attempted a reconciliation; Plotinus is another example of the merely conceptual overcoming of dualism, whereas Iamblichus in his spiritual project was perhaps at bottom not so different from the Gnostics on this front, that is, of real overcoming.

Becoming-spirit can be effected not otherwise than via the spirit itself, via gnosis. The material body is a restriction; the more one is determined by matter, and especially by the body, the more unfree one is. In contrast, the less bound to matter one is, the more free, the more is one identified with what one truly is, that being the spirit or soul, which is in itself nothing other than pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence.

In their metaphysics, the Gnostics took the logic of dualism to its true and inevitable conclusions; the same extremity is present, so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in each and every dualism… to this we can only agree, and perhaps smirk if we are feeling particularly cheeky. Good and evil – are they not also facts of our experience, quite in spite of our disagreements over their objective status and their sphere of designation?

Is not the word of sin restriction (as the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat has communicated to us)? By way of cosmic anticipation, the Gnostics knew this, and thus declared matter to be equivalent to sin. In this they are not far off, for matter is the regime of separation, in fact just is a metaphysical separateness, a self-splintering of being, that is, mind in its broadest sense as beyond thought.

And yet we have not entered the misty lands of Advaita, fond of which though you readers might be. The purity of the soul is such as to have no object, to have no separation, but it is not to be thereby empty or featureless, as if it were nothing at all from its own perspective; and from ours? Here is the riddle of duality and non-duality, which can be solved – though not here – by a non-philosophical concept, namely the unilateral duality of the professional philosopher Laruelle. More simply, and certainly more comprehensible, we can take a page from Henri Bergson, to suggest the updated gnostic position as that of pure virtuality, an immediate wholeness of self which cannot be sundered, and a oneness of will; is this not a far cry from the annihilation of the aspirant (in ego? In soul?), which may nonetheless be one way of describing to the profane the process by which true gnosis is achieved. But beware, for as always and ever, the description is not the thing, and in the mistaking thereof there cometh hurt.


Are we then modern-day Gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts? Can we really not overcome the antinomy of being in propositional calculus? Well, why would it ever possibly be reasonable to suppose such a mode of attack? Have we really strayed so far?

We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the determining and reductionist nature of that opposition. And we are also not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of games, save only the Cosmic Game on which many more essays could be written and yet of which nothing substantial thereby could ever be said; which, in other words, must be played.

The Gnostics thought not to reduce, as is often alleged of them. Rather, they confronted the tension, nay even the outright contradiction, directly, in the process of which confrontation is all power given. And what followed from this blasphemous empiricism? In fact, we are in a good position to find this out, being the good (post)moderns we are, and thus constantly confronting precisely the same issue even after all this time. The only difference, and it may not apply in all cases (though we do look to the academy with scorn on this point), is hypocritical and disearnest discourse that is always at odds with the consciousness of them who speak it. Would that they speaketh not...

The means of “overcoming” our centuries-old dualism is first of all a complete avoidance of the entire theoretical problematic of overcoming, i.e., that of our anti-dualism! It cannot be fought by these weapons: propositional projectiles pierce it not, and our analytical swords shatter as if upon stone. I therefore cannot help but be convinced that the project of contemporary philosophy is an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, and thereby to convince oneself that one has overcome that past. Each repetition of this problematic takes on a negligibly differing emphasis, and indeed these often “overcome” one another. But the solution has been with us for millenia: Instead of this extraordinary psychological self-harm, this ever-more-tortured and self-flagellating exercise in nihilism, why not sit awhile, in silence and without disturbance? In truth, it seems so vastly preferable that I cannot imagine why its cause is so infrequently taken up. And the goal is quite the same.

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