We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming
IEvery 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 increasingly radical conceptual responses to what is a fundamentally non-conceptual realm. With each theoretical revolution, each hasty overturning, 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, establishing an irrefutable, singular hegemony, whether institutional or on the level of self-discipline.
The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and in all likelihood Eastern too) was indicated several millennia ago by a doctrine now reviled as heretical: 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.
IIThis thesis must be explained. Before turning to Gnosticism as a response to dualism, we should first examine dualism itself, and only then why it constitutes an impasse. What could warrant us to assert dualism as a fundamental fact? Fortunately, philosophy has already done much of the legwork in identifying and demonstrating the ubiquity of binary opposition, on which dualism is based.
Binary opposition is an opposition of contrast based upon two possibilities: X versus not-X, we might say. Often this not-X is given a positive name, which does little to obscure the binary nature of its relation to X: body and mind, spirit and matter, self and other, &c. Further complicating the matter, but by no means changing its essential characteristics, is the possibility of stratification: a number of different binary oppositions can each be accepted and placed into some kind of order, either a hierarchy or an organization of spheres or realms in which different oppositions have their places. For example, one might quibble over whether “green or not-green” applies to ideas; ideas may not be the sort of thing that could be either green or not-green. In the case of disparate spheres of application, the rule is dictated by ordinary language or various specifications thereof; in the case of a hierarchy, any number of logical or metaphysical principles may be at play.
It is the great victory of contemporary philosophy to have ruthlessly established the binary opposition inherent in everything. Each “overcoming” of binary thinking is later found to be fully as binary, only perhaps more subtle – we would say more devious.
So much for binary opposition; now what of dualism? Dualism is precisely when a binary opposition establishes itself over all other binary oppositions (and indeed everything whatsoever), in a way so as to encompass them and subordinate them to itself. It is a binary opposition that is inescapable, such that it leaves no middle ground, neither gap nor glut. Descartes proposed the clearest example of modern dualism in the form of thinking and extended substances, neither of which could have any (theoretical) relation or resolution with regard to the other.
Dualism is properly speaking not a philosophical orientation but an immediate fact. Even the philosophers should agree to this, since they claim to have a way out, namely the overcoming of dualist distinctions in the realm of theory. It is the heritage of critical philosophy to find the truth or essence behind the appearances, where “truth” here would indicate in some cases the resolution of a perceived tension, in other cases a forced encounter with a further mediation external to the appearance at hand. Yea, philosophy itself has taken up dualism as a fact, but one to be overcome by means of thought. But has any concept of a “subject-object” ever produced the dissolution of the subject into the object or vice versa? No, the problem is not our knowledge, much less our belief. The problem lies deeper still.
IIIWhy is it that philosophy finds itself menaced by this fact of dualism? It will be seen that to give power to this fact is to render the typical philosophical response to the problem hopeless.
Just as fundamentally as we experience the reality of dualism, we experience its disconcerting and uncomfortable nature. There is something sinister 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.
The repugnance to dualism is not merely theoretical; it is not as if we must transpose our dualist reality into propositional form and proceed to discover the logical difficulties brought about by binary opposition, though of course that can be and has been done. There is something else at work, something not assimilable to the regime of discourse, a psychological or even biophysiological side to the impasse. Indeed, this is its wellspring, the energy source of philosophical activity itself, at least insofar as that philosophy is in the critical-discursive mode that has largely characterized its modern manifestations.
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? This was the path taken by (at least the early) Freud. Once the repressed was made conscious, by way of the analyst’s interpretation, the neurosis was supposed to dissolve. But the problem of experience can in no way be resolved by developing a new “concept” of experience. Thought thus runs up against the wall of mind, that is, of spirit. The problem becomes insuperable when we transmute the dualist fact into logical or conceptual form and from there attempt to solve it via conceptual or even linguistic manipulation. In reality, this process has left the impasse far behind.
On the one hand, a philosophy that did not posit a duality at least provisionally fundamental, a duality to be “overcome”, would not yet even be a philosophy, but would remain a dogmatic theology. On the other hand, a philosophy that actually faced the fact of dualism could also not remain a philosophy, could not continue to philosophize in good faith. But in what could this confrontation consist, if we are to produce a proper notion of overcoming, and even thereafter to overcome?
However, thought remains wholly conditioned by it. The unresolved becomes the repressed.
Reichian analysis had to rescue bioenergetic processes from their obscure death in Freudian discourse; today, we must likewise rescue experience from philosophical discourse: “An autonomic function can be objectivized by practice and in the end be made subject to conscious control” (Reich, The Cancer Biopathy 186). Let us return to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.
IVThe Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the spirit. Creation as such was folly; in Gnostic theology we attend to a distinction between the Demiurge, a sadistic creator rather akin to the evil genius conceived by Descartes, and the True God who neither creates nor was created. His servants of ignorance and disinformation are the archons, the prison guards of manifestation. And yet there is a divine spark lost in matter, longing to return to its home. There is still hope for the spirit.
These beliefs led to two superficially opposed positions that nonetheless concealed a deeper unity: asceticism and libertinism. The denial of the flesh can take two forms, and herein is the truth also of hedonism, its reverse. Asceticism represents the wholesale turning away from matter in the name of spirit; libertinism, for its part, represents the minimization of the importance of matter, for the spirit is the only reality, so what does it matter whether all forms of carnal activities are pursued? The deeper unity of the two opposite practices, expressed in two opposite discourses replete with corresponding reason and argument, is here revealed.
The functional identity of asceticism and libertinism flows from a deeper source: gnosis, the key concept of the Gnostic system. Only by gnosis can the bonds of matter be destroyed – with the grace of God of course. Gnosis, or “knowledge”, can be effected only by the spirit. The more one is identified with the body – where “identification” means something more than assent or proposition – the less free one is. If one is an animal, a body, then one is an automaton. In contrast, the more one identifies with spirit, the more one becomes what one truly is, the more free does one become. The spirit is pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence. All that separates the Gnostics from our most sublime mystics is the final reversion of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence; but one cannot blame them for this small mistake, upon which however everything turns.
Causality, on the other hand, proceeds from the higher to the lower, where eventually it melts away into slime. Hence the basis of gnosis in spirit and not in matter, no matter how complexly organized. But why is the move towards matter a deterioration? The Gnostic emanations (Aeons), like their counterparts in Neoplatonism, proceed from the One, True God, &c., through various higher spheres, and down to depths in degradation. With each step in this process, there is a restriction, a determination. Freedom, here equated with indeterminacy and singularity, decreases with each step. When matter is finally reached, with its attendant mythology of Sophia’s folly and the Demiurge’s deception, one is hard pressed to deny its evil. While the Neoplatonists treat evil as an illusion, so that not even the lowest matter is truly evil, the Gnostics confront this degradation head-on.
Is not Restriction the Word of Sin (as the minister of Hoor-paa-kraat has revealed to us)? In their cosmic anticipation of this doctrine, the Gnostics expressed a highly sophisticated understanding of determination. The Gnostics knew the restriction of matter as sin, and indeed matter is the contraction of spirit, this separation in the heart of being. Plotinus laid aside this difficulty, believing that an imperfection in reality was merely an imperfection in thought. His successors took up that methodology and endlessly produced intellectual distinctions, none of which produced one iota of progress until Iamblichus overcame the discourse and restored the place of theurgy to the Neoplatonic tradition.
Philosophy has followed in the footsteps of Plotinus. Even when it stretches itself out towards practice, towards experience, it is in the manner of Iamblichus, that is, from the perspective of an accomplished resolution. Iamblichus himself may have truly effected this overcoming, but the same cannot be said of his latter-day imitators. No, for a real overcoming we must look not to Neoplatonism, and certainly not to modern philosophical character-neuroses, but to Gnosticism, and above all, to our own inherent but repressed Gnostic experience, and therefore our Gnostic being.
VFortunately for us, the same extreme dualism found within Gnosticism is present, or so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in basically every thought and system whatsoever with which they disagree. Are we then modern-day gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts?
We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the deterministic and reductionist nature of that opposition. And we are also not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of thought. But if we knew we were so close to Gnosticism, and perhaps always had been, things would be much simpler. We have taken the path of the Neoplatonists, though we think ourselves far more clever; but the problem is the same. Rigorously said: We have always been Gnostic, though we have always repressed this fact.
The Gnostics thought not to reduce, though of reductionism they have never ceased to be accused. Rather, they confronted the contradiction and refused the siren song of synthesis. Before us lies a similarly important task, and it is perhaps the only task of the current philosophy that can survive our archaic therapy. We must become Gnostic once again, not yet in practice but first in theory. The stasis we suffer, the shrinking both of life and away from life, only feeds the philosophical disease. Discourse is not the last step of our journey, but merely the first.
The means of overcoming our sick relation to overcoming can only lie in the complete avoidance of the theoretical attitude that leads us to reject primary contradictions; there is, furthermore, no synthetic moment of escape. For a real overcoming of dualism, a thoroughly dualistic character is required. It cannot be fought by the philosophical weapons. Propositional projectiles pierce it not, and the swords of analysis shatter upon the real.
The entire project of philosophy as we know it is, therefore, an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, like the patient who insists they are cured as soon as they connect their dream to their childhood trauma; it is indeed the patient who already knows the proper interpretations, along with the analytic theory itself, who is often the hardest to cure. Each repetition of the problematic takes on a negligibly different emphasis. The history of philosophy, its “progress”, is nothing but this repetition termed “overcoming”.
The first step to waking up is admitting that one is asleep, and has always been asleep. Woe to the partisans of death, those who shut themselves up in fortresses of discourse, simultaneously isolated and colonizing, thinking they are alive! The nihilism of discourse moves in place, constantly mutating but everywhere remaining the same. For gnosis we must first know ourselves to be Gnostic, and who knows where we shall go from there.