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, with a set of facts or experiences that underlie it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of increasingly radical and self-authorizing conceptual responses to what is fundamentally non-conceptual. With each theoretical revolution, each hasty overturning, each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of abstract dishonesty. Finally it makes itself inextricable, establishing an irrefutable, singular hegemony that is operative both institutionally and in the individual thought patterns of so-called philosophers.
The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and to a certain degree of 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.
Dualism! What horror! Overly-sophisticated minds will ask: “Have we not already overcome such nonsense? We have long since surpassed gnosticism, which was mired in insoluble philosphical difficulties; it cut up the world in two, so no wonder it could not put it back together again!” A profound mind must declare our dualism to be a naive problem, for how else are the rational heirs of the Enlightenment to guarantee their progress? While my predecessors were persecuted and relegated to the madhouse, if not the afterlife, I cannot be so suppressed. The perennial truth of this so-called naive problem emerges within every age, commanding an unsurpassed fascination for those whose eyes remain unclouded by thinking.
Pathology this is not; the “modern” philosophical response, on the other hand, is fundamentally neurotic. On the basis of this analysis we shall justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic.
IIThis thesis must be explained. A “spiritual fact” has been indicated, but what is this fact? In particular, what is the facticity of dualism? What finally, is the mode of being of a spiritual impasse, an impasse that exists in such a way? Only after considering these preliminary questions can the thesis of our perennial gnosticism be engaged.
Dualism is inherent in the structure of our experience. Indeed, what could be clearer than the distinction of time and space? Or that of spirit (or mind if one prefers) and matter? Do not stop me and indicate the many logical problems of exclusionary dualism, for that would be to miss the point. First admit the apparent immediacy of dualism to consciousness, all the while refraining from translating the experience into a discursive philosophical problem. The directly perceived difference between presence to oneself and absorption in theoretical concerns ought to easily manifest merely by means of this refraining.
Although Bergson proposed perhaps the most convincing such dualism (due directly to its immediacy and untranslatability into theoretical problems), Descartes certainly provided the best known example, namely the distinction between thinking and extended substances. Note that for Descartes, despite this partial theoreticization of the issue, there remains no theoretical or logical resolution of the problem of relation between the two substances.
To say that dualism is a fact is to say that it is there regardless of our thinking about it. Whether we think ourselves out of it or not, it remains in its facticity, right before us. Do we not encounter the temptation, even as philosophers, to interpret reality as insufficient, and indeed to turn up our noses at its very vulgarity? Where is our simplicity, our naivete? Must we immediately set to changing the world? Either way, the world must be dualist for us to seek its transformation into something else, and we shall see the true nature of this “transformation” soon enough. 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 as its unfortunate precursors, only perhaps more subtly so – we would say more deviously.
Dualism is thus properly speaking not a philosophical orientation but an immediate fact.
IIIWhy is it that philosophy finds itself menaced by this fact of dualism? The fact of dualism constitutes a spiritual impasse for philosophy, against which thought is powerless. Philosophy cannot openly acknowledge this impasse without rendering itself superfluous, without transmuting its careful demonstrations of the overcoming of subject and object, mind and matter, into so many worthless linguistic games. Not one conceptual unfolding of a “subject-object” has ever produced the dissolution of an actual subject or object into one another. The problem is not our knowledge or understanding, much less our belief. The problem lies deeper still.
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. 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? The disease is spiritual – perhaps it is even impossible to disentangle the impasse of dualism from the intuition of a fallen humanity. The longing for transcendence is perennial, and it is not difficult to see why.
Philosophy attempts to deal with these feelings by transposing the fact of dualism into propositional form, as explicit concepts or positions, which it then proceeds to expose as logically contradictory or theoretically insufficient. These theoretical problems are then taken as reason to either reject the fact of dualism completely, denying that it ever existed, or, what is almost the same thing, develop a theoretical solution that contorts the original duality and leaves it behind. This approach is just as absurd as if philosophy set out to overcome the experience of the color orange by declaring it a mere mix of red and yellow.
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 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, or better, of spirit. The philosophical attempt to solve the theoretical surrogates of spiritual fact has in reality left that impasse far behind. Even more importantly, it blinds us to the very fact of the impasse and therefore to one of the most fundamental elements of spirituality. The unresolved has become the repressed. “Conceptual overcoming” is the true name of a degrading philosophical materialism.
Reichian analysis had to rescue bioenergetic processes from their obscure death at the hands of Freudian discourse. Today, we must likewise rescue experience, and thereby spirit, from philosophical discourse. Philosophy has the same relation to the facts of spiritual experience as character armor has to stasis-neurosis. This does not mean, however, that a rejuvenated practice of philosophy is hopeless; a holistic, therapeutic approach remains possible. Wilhelm Reich notes: “An autonomic function can be objectivized by practice and in the end be made subject to conscious control” (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. The former’s 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.
Gnosis is the possibility of this hope, and the key concept of the Gnostic system. Only by gnosis can the bonds of matter be destroyed. 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 becomes. 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.
But why is the emanation of matter such folly for spirit? The Gnostic emanations, like their counterparts in Neoplatonism, proceed from the One, through various higher spheres, and down to depths in degradation, finally to melt away into slime and chaos. With each step in this process, there is a restriction, a determination. Freedom, here equated with indeterminate 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 treated evil as an illusion, so that not even the lowest forms of matter were truly evil, the Gnostics confronted this degradation head-on.
This Gnostic inclination to struggle with evil, to face it head on, can be contrasted with the Neoplatonic addiction to intellectual distinctions. Plotinus, and his successors after him (save perhaps a one), sought a monism in the grips of which all contradiction disappeared. Moving away from the existence of evil as a fact of spiritual experience, the Neoplatonists pioneered a fundamentally incomplete system of mysticism (in the words of Bergson). Now, this is not to say the Gnostics moved beyond them; rather, the Neoplatonists walked backwards from the starting line, and it was not for them to enter Paradise.
Philosophy has followed in the footsteps of Plotinus, and neither of them have cleared the way to even begin. The baleful seductions of conceptual overcoming have led them both astray. 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, at least deep down. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the deterministic and reductionist nature of opposition. And we too are 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 refused to reduce their experience to the One, though of reductionism they have never ceased to be accused. Rather, they confronted the contradiction and rejected the siren song of synthesis. Before us lies a similarly important task, and it is perhaps the only element of modern-day 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 to the rejection of primary contradictions; there must be, 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 a 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, its evil greatest when it insists on its own ability to act, when it dismantles the border between itself and reality.
We need not torture our bodies in the name of spirit. We need not put the cosmos to the torch. Our goal remains to pass beyond the gates of this all-too-vulgar dualism that keeps us mentally enslaved. Although the Gnostic is a far cry from the true mystic, the quest for unification requires a decisive and holistic division, which must be made in full earnestness. To be a Gnostic is to take the first step on the path of spirit, to swear an oath that one day we will not need to be a Gnostic anymore. For then the goal shall be reached.