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The “Modern” as Gnostic

September 27, 2022


Historians dispute the origins of ancient Gnosticism, though it first occurred sometime during the two hundred year period from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D.

It is not known whether Gnosticism is pre‑Christian, Jewish, or Christian in origin. That in itself is significant because of the condition into which, at that time, the ancient world had fallen.

Political disruptions, social upheavals, and military clashes of expanding empires were the normal disruptive conditions for the peoples who, since the expansion of the Persian empire, lived during this period of civilizational unsettlement. As a result of these disorders, traditional religious myths which performed public functions in the maintenance of order of cosmological civilizations lost their social validity and were cast adrift, sometimes to be lost forever or to be adopted in part by conquering cultures. Sometimes the old myths were co‑opted by the Gnostic sects, plucked from their original symbolic and cultural context and recast into a new form with new meaning. This profusion of symbols has tended to create problems for the scholars in this field, who find it difficult to distinguish between types of Gnosticism.

The word gnosis is a Greek word meaning “knowledge.” It is different from the word episteme, which means science in the sense of human knowledge and the philosophical inquiry into first things. Perhaps with the advent of Gnosticism the word gnosis came to mean exclusively religious knowledge, more specifically, secret knowledge of the hidden or alien God.

Hans Jonas writes in The Gnostic Religion that the gnosis of the Gnostics is truth received through “secret tore or through inner illumination.” As such, gnosis is knowledge about the god whom man cannot know with his human reason. Gnosis was also considered to be an event in the mind of God. Simultaneously with the possession of gnosis by the Gnostic, a disruption or existential condition of ignorance in the godhead was resolved. In attempting to define gnosis, the Colloquium on the origin of Gnosticism held in Messina in 1966 defined gnosis by reference to this ontological function.

Not every gnosis is Gnosticism, but only that which involves in this perspective the idea of the divine consubstantiality of the spark that is in need of being awakened and reintegrated. This gnosis of Gnosticism involves the divine identity of the knower (the Gnostic), the known (the divine substance of one’s transcendent self), and the means by which one knows (gnosis as an implicitly divine faculty is to be awakened and actualized. . .)

The saving character of the possession of gnosis is derived from the belief that the disruption in being which obsessed all Gnostics is not permanent, but is a condition which will pass. They believed that the divine captured in the world and the godhead itself are becoming in a process which will lead to the return of the forces in god to a condition of unity. Gnosticism, therefore, was a prophecy that the contradictions of existence, infinitely radicalized by the Gnostic’s rejection of the material world as demonic, would be overcome in a supra‑mundane pneumatic process of purification. In a sense, this prophecy of divine unity was self‑confirming. The truth of the apocalypse of Gnosticism is known to the Gnostic because he himself is both savior and saved. If the Gnostic’s true self were not really divine, he would have remained ignorant; thus the possession of gnosis became proof of the revelation. The possession of gnosis was also an indication of the superiority of the Gnostic’s apocalypse over the revelations of other religions. Mani, for example, the founder of Manichaeanism, claimed to be the fourth and last prophet, the others being Buddha, Zoroaster, and Christ. Gnosticism “transvalued” the values of these earlier theophanies and established with unshakeable certainty the Gnostic’s absolute identification of man with God.

We will term this revolutionary attitude, manifest in the identification of gnosis with the divine, the syncretism of Gnostic myths, the certainty of their apocalyptic eschatology, and their radical dualism, the “transvaluation of values.” The term was coined by Nietzsche, who chose it to express the theme of a projected work, of which only the Preface and the first part, Der Antichrist, were completed.

Nietzsche sought to reverse the transvaluation of pagan values which Christianity accomplished by turning the instrument of transvaluation upon Christianity itself. As we use the term, however, we see the instrument as the symbolic form of the type of religious experience characteristic of Gnostic religion. The transvaluation of values signifies, therefore, the reversal and thus implicitly the rejection of traditional valuations of reality. Gnosticism, in this sense, is a radical assertion that what traditional societies have considered true is both untrue and the very essence of evil. This revolutionary significance of Gnostic transvaluation of values is both a major aspect of analysis of Gnosticism and a means of its identification. Gilles Quispel writes in this vein:

What then is revolutionary in ancient Gnosis? This, that a new outline of the relationship of man to the world and to God is present. The qualitative difference between man and the world is revealed. Man is indeed in the world, however he is not of the world. He is even more than the planet gods which are a cipher, an ideogram of the universe. The world loses its transparency to the divine and becomes daemonic. Plotinus is amazed to discern that the Gnostics “despised the beauty of the world,” something unprecedented for a Greek . . . .Man and the world are incommensurable. Man is other than the world and the same as God.

Our discussion of representative Gnostic transvaluations will include their view of matter, cosmos, and man.

In the system of Mani, revulsion against matter (a standard theme in Gnosticism, the rejection of physical nature) is explained by means of an elaborate myth in which matter is formed from the carcasses of evil Archons. The plants and the animals which live in the world are the creatures of the evil principle, of Darkness, the result of the lust of evil for light. The system of Valentinus depicts a similar view of matter. The origin of matter is in the emotions of the lowest emanation of the godhead, the Lower Sophia. In one account described by Jonas, these emotions, fear, bewilderment, ignorance, are changed into corporeal form by “Jesus,” a saving emanation, sent to the Lowest Sophia by the “Aeons” of the godhead .8 They are negative and constitute the bad substance, matter. Material existence, for the Gnostics, was not a good, but the epitome of evil.

In ancient, pre-philosophic symbols of order, the concept cosmos symbolizes the experience of order common to man, the order of his soul and of nature (physis); all are expressed in the symbol of the order of the cosmos.

Cosmos was also a concept that reflected the totality of order, and the inter‑relatedness of order, its commonality, which included in its range the divine, society, nature, and man. Like physis, which preceded the first discovery of the arche of all that is in a transcendent divine reality that Anaximander called to theion, cosmos is a symbol which included not only the order of the cosmos but the origin of order in the divine.

In Gnosticism, however, the goodness and transparency of cosmic order to the divine is transvalued.

Cosmos ceases to convey the meaning “good order,” but now conveys the presence of “evil order.” The order of the cosmos to the Gnostics was demonic, the creation of an evil demiurge. The true God, the alien God, is impenetrably beyond the cosmos. Yet it is to Him that the pneumatic essence trapped in the world , must return.

Hans Jonas writes of the religious attitude fundamental to this view of cosmos:

We can imagine with what feelings gnostic men must have looked up to the starry sky. How evil its brilliance must have looked to them, how alarming its vastness and the rigid immutability of its courses, how cruel its muteness! The music of the spheres was no longer heard, and the admiration for the perfect spherical form gave place to the terror of so much perfection directed at the enslavement of man. The pious wonderment with which earlier man had looked up to the higher regions of the universe became a feeling of oppression by the iron vault which keeps man exiled from his home beyond. But it is this “beyond” which really qualifies the new conception of the physical universe and of man’s position in it. Without it, we should have nothing but a hopeless worldly pessimism. Its transcending presence limits the inclusiveness of the cosmos to the status of only a part of reality, and thus of something from which there is an escape.

What is the psychological center of Gnostic systems? Quispel suggests that it is the condition, existence, and salvation of the trapped spark of the divine.

            Gnosis, in the final sense, is anthropology; man stands in the center of the interests of the Gnostics. Their             myths and doctrines represent the origin of man and his being, so that he knows which way to go, namely, the way to the self, the way to salvation.

In the strict meaning of the concept “man” as human, not a god, however, the ancient Gnostics had no interest. What is to be saved is the emanation of the divine trapped in the body. The central theme in Valentinian speculation is the rescue of Adam, the pneuma enclosed in matter by the Archons.

In the system of Mani, the principle of evil, Darkness, fashions Adam and Eve from the sight of an emanation of the principle of God. into these figures he pours the captive Light of God. the creation of man thus becomes a strategy in the offensive against Good.

We are dealing then with a religion in which the word “man” has two meanings.

On the one hand there is the “man” which is their chief concern and interest. But he is not “man” in the sense that the word implies a theoretical distinction between man and the divine. This “man” is distinctly not human; he is a divine emanation of the godhead. In the Hermetic Poimandres this “man” is Primal Man, an emanation of the “Absolute Power,” the image of the “Father.” But he aspires to the “power of him who rules over the fire.”  He is received by the “lower Nature” and this reception explains why “man” is “twofold, mortal through the body, immortal through the essential Man.”  In nature “man” is a slave to heimarmene, fate, and is ignorant of the Father. Through knowledge “that the Father of all things consists of Light and Life, therefore likewise the Primal Man issued from him, and by this he knows himself to be of Light and Life” he will return to Life and be saved.

There are the knowing ones, and the unknowing ones. The unknowing ones are left to be devoured by passions which are evil. Hans Jonas sees in the Hermetic Poimandres

not just a rejection of the physical universe in the light of pessimism, but the assertion of an entirely new idea of human freedom, very different from the moral conception of it which the Greek philosophers had developed. However profoundly man is determined by nature, of which he is part and parcel. . .there still remains an innermost center which is not of nature’s realm and by which he is above all its promptings and necessities.

The transvaluation of values of the Gnostics presents substantial problems of theoretical interpretation.

Let us compare it to Aristotle’s definition of man’s humanity. Taking the good man or spoudaios as representative man, Aristotle showed the consubstantiality of human nous with the divine nous and the actualization of man’s humanity in the immortalizing act of noetic contemplation of the divine. This consciousness of the opening of the soul to transcendent nous in Greek philosophy is an event in history which offsets or differentiates our creaturely experience of participation in an unchangeable relationship with the divine from the compact experience of being within the medium of the cosmological myths. The new consciousness of transcendence of the divine beyond existence and essence, followed by the discovery of the depth of the human psyche, which led in turn to the crucial development of the science of the order of the soul attuned to the divine arche of its order, was experienced as an historical development.

This insight into the historical dimension of existence as a process in time was first formulated by Anaximander, who said: “The origin (arche) of things is the Apeiron . . . . It is necessary for things to perish into that from which they were born; for they pay one another penalty for their injustice (adikia) according to the ordinance of Time.”  Anaximander experienced existence as a creaturely process which is perishable but nevertheless consubstantial with the timeless Apeiron, which is the origin of the process of existence. Thus Anaximander observes, “it is necessary for things to perish,” an acknowledgment, on the one hand, of the reality of death, and, and on the other, of the reality of immortality since what exists will “perish into that from which they were born,” which is to say that they will return to the divine arche of being. Eric Voegelin writes of this fragment of Anaximander:

Reality was experienced by Anaximander. . .as a cosmic process in which things emerge from, and disappear into, the nonexistence of the Apeiron. Things do not exist out of themselves, all at once and forever; they exist out of the ground to which they return. Hence, to exist means to participate in two modes of reality: (1) In the Apeiron as the timeless arche of things and (2) In the ordered succession of things as the manifestation of the Apeiron in time.

The mystery of reality as a process of participation in the divine origin of being was experienced by the Classical‑Christian philosophers as a process pointing ultimately towards transfiguration of reality. Plato’s concept of the turning around of the psyche towards the transcendent Good beyond existence and essence in his Republic and St. Augustine’s concept of the peregrination of the city of God and the souls of men towards Christ articulate this experience. The ascent (epanodos) of the soul to the Agathon in Platonic philosophy, just as the conversion of the soul to God of the Christian experience, articulates a transformation of the soul. Yet this experience did not occlude the simultaneous creaturely experience of the psyche in the world. Body which is en‑souled is also psyche which is embodied. Physical, creaturely existence is reality.

In the Gnostic movement of antiquity in which the scattered diffusion of the divine spark ends in a pneumatic process of running back to the godhead, however, this “balance of consciousness,” to use Eric Voegelin’s concept, is lost.

The creaturely world is rejected as is the humanity of man. Experience of existence as a mode of participation is occluded by absolute identification with the divine. The Gnostic experience of the divine, hidden God, from which the Gnostic adept was an emanation, left no room for the noetic experience of the participative nature of human consciousness, of the goodness of the cosmos and of material existence. It left only the transfiguring experience of gnosis.

In 1952, Eric Voegelin, attracted by the similarity of ancient Gnosticism to modern political religions, extended the typology of ancient Gnosticism to an analysis of contemporary political ideologies in order to delimit the religious experience which engendered them. Modern Gnosticism, he found,

may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling. Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. These Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.

This modern Gnostic “redivinization of society” is itself a transvaluation of the Christian “dedivinization” of the temporal sphere which was the outcome of the clash between Christianity and pagan culture and its gods. Christian apologists “dedivinized” man and society by expelling the gods from the world. They thus reordered the Western interpretation of man’s existence “through the experience of man’s destination, by the grace of the world‑transcendent God, toward eternal life in beatific vision.” This “dedivinization” could not have occurred without the experiental atrophy of polytheism and its challenge in the form of the Christian experience. Thus the contemporary “redivinization” of modern Gnosticism presupposes the atrophy of the Christian experience in intellectual culture and its replacement by a religious experience which is impatient with the uncertainties and anxieties, the insecurity, which accompanies a world without gods .

. . .when the world is de‑divinized, communication with the world‑transcendent God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith, in the sense of Heb. 11:1, as the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen. Ontologically, the substance of things hoped for is. nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and, epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith. The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty which if gained is loss‑the very lightness of this fabric may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.

Voegelin’s experiential analysis of the Gnostic character of political ideologies was based on several generations of scholarship, commencing with the nineteenth century student of Gnosticism, Ferdinand Christian Baur, Professor of Theology at the University of Tubingen, who devoted Part Four of his work Die Christliche Gnosis, oder die Religionsphilasophie in ihrergeschichtlichen Entwicklung to a comparison of ancient Gnosticism with the theosophy of Boehme, Schelling’s philosophy of nature, Schleiermacher’s doctrine of faith, and Hegel’s philosophy of religion.

Since 1952, however, more recent research persuaded Eric Voegelin that analysis of modern political religion under the generic term “gnosticism” tends to obscure the historical complexity of this phenomenon. Other streams of religious thought, particularly including Hermeticism, “demonic magic” and NeoPlatonism, Kabbalah, and Alchemy, were important contributors to the development of modern intellectual consciousness.

My purpose is to show how two aspects of the Gnostic derailment, (1) occlusion of creaturely existence and (2) absolute identification of “man” with God by the Gnostics, became formative elements in the shaping of modern political religion.

For this reason we will examine the phenomenon of Renaissance Hermeticism by which, in part, the Gnostic deification of man was transmitted to the modern world. We will attempt to differentiate the Gnostic elements in Hermeticism from the non-Gnostic and then try to show how these two movements were important contributory elements in the development of philosophic Idealism.


The revival of the thought of Hermes Trismegistus by the Renaissance Neo‑Platonists was not as strange a renascence as one might think. The Renaissance itself is noted for its high valuation of the past, and the thought of Hermes Trismegistus was believed to constitute an ancient revelation predating the revelation of Moses and the philosophy of the Greeks. By reviving the prisca theologia (antique theology) of Hermes, early Renaissance Neo‑Platonists like Marsilio Ficino (1433‑1499) attempted to revive a true ancient theology and reconcile it with Christianity.

That later, persons like Giordano Bruno would abandon this Christian interpretation and simply assert the truth of Hermeticism was the natural outgrowth of a radical anti philosophical testament. When in 1614 Isaac Casaubon demonstrated by textual analysis that the Hermetic writings were in fact post‑Christian in origin, fanatic devotees of Hermeticism rejected the evidence. Committed to the reform of religion by an infusion of the thought of Hermes, the new Renaissance messiahs were not deflected from their redemptive paths by a scholarly argument that the documents on which their new religion was based were not what they believed them to be.  The central focus of the Gnostic aspects of ancient Hermeticism was the deification of man. In the Poimandres of Hermes Trismegistus, an account of a mystic vision in which the mind of God, identified as Poimandres, speaks directly to Hermes, the transmission of divine gnosis is made possible because that which Hermes is able to see and hear the divine nous is itself divine.

Those who attain to this knowledge are saved by becoming God. In Hermetic thought, man has two souls: “the one is from the First Mind and also shares in the power of the Demiurge, the other has been put in from the revolution of the heavens, and into this the God‑seeing soul enters.”

Thus the lower soul embodies the higher or “God‑seeing soul,” and the function of gnosis is to release the higher from the lower. Ontologically, that which is saved by gnosis is the god which saves. Embodied in this deification of man is a radically new idea of the freedom of man. If in the philosophic sense freedom is action within certain moral limits, the essence of freedom in the Hermetic sense is the overcoming of limits.

The core of Renaissance Hermeticism as in ancient Gnosticism was a radical deification of man, with similar anthropological consequences. The ideas which Marsilio Ficino used to express this were several. In its most general form, he used the concept of the circle: the beginning and end of which is God, the middle, human intellect.

Alternatively he wrote of the existence of the “divine mind” in men, living, shining, and reflecting itself there. This concept of the dwelling of the divine mind in man may simply be a way of expressing the idea that all that is exists in God. But Ficino wrote further that man is the image of God in the sense that his true being is a reflection of the “divine face” or divine goodness. God, he wrote, in willing himself, “wills all other things which are God Himself as being in God, and as flowing out of God are images of the divine face and have as their end the task of reproducing and confirming the divine goodness.”

The symbol of the “flowing out” or emanation of existent things in God tends to break the distinction of kind between creaturely existence and the divine and alter it to a difference of degree. Consequently, Ficino could write that if God is goodness, then the soul becomes God by love of goodness.” Just as, not he who sees the good, but he who wills it becomes good, so the Soul becomes divine. not from considering God, but from loving Him.” Ficino writes also, “The entire effort of our Soul is to become God. This effort is as natural to man as that of flying is to birds. For it is inherent in all men, everywhere and always; therefore it does not follow the incidental quality of some man, but the nature of the species itself.”

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola also expressed these ideas, though more compactly and allegorically, in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” Written as a preface or introductory speech to the publication of his nine hundred theses, this short oration is a virtual compendium of the Hermetic deification of man. Unfortunately, the disputation which was to occur in Rome in January, 1487, never took place because an alert Pope Innocent VIII, suspecting the heretical cast of some of Giovanni Pico’s theses, prohibited the disputation and ordered an investigation.

The somewhat restricted Christian Hermeticism of Ficino and Giovanni Pico gave place in the late sixteenth century to the aggressive revival of Hermetic prisca theologia by Giordano Bruno. Bruno was accused of saying that he intended to “found a new sect under the name of philosophy,” a form of competition frowned upon by the Inquisitors who burned him at the stake in 1600. Bruno viewed himself as a Messiah come to save the world through a renaissance of Hermetic magic. In his Spaccio della bestia trionfante (1584), Bruno openly advocates the making of “familiar, affable and domestic gods, ” as the means of world renewal. In that work, Jupiter admonishes the other gods to reform themselves, promising that “if we thus renew our heaven, the constellations and influences shall be new, the impressions and fortunes shall be new, for all things depend on this upper world . . . .” The magician participates in this celestial renewal by divinations which evoke the good traits of the gods and thus simultaneously reduce the influence of their bad traits. This attitude conflicts with the ancient Gnostic antipathy to the material world, but the Hermetic corpus also contained the basically non‑Gnostic religious view of the world as a manifestation of God. It was this acceptance of the world in a transfigured state, but not in its present reality, which, we believe, was a principal formative element in the view of nature of Idealist Humanism.

 In one aspect of the Corpus Hermeticum, for example, the world is viewed as transparent to a world spirit or God which itself images forth the “greater god. “All beings in the world are by that token in God. In the “Lament” of the Hermetic Asclepius, the view of imminent decline is coupled with the view of world reform. In the old age of the world, evil, as opposed to good, will prevail, the gods will depart from man, and the order of nature will collapse. But this condition is not final. At some point in this decline, God will intervene by means of a flood or consuming fire that will destroy evil, and the world will be returned to its original beauty. “That is what the rebirth of the world will be; a renewal of all good things, a holy and most solemn restoration of Nature herself, imposed by force in the course of time. . .by the will of God.”

 Perhaps persuaded that culture was undergoing a process of renewal, the Renaissance Magus found this Hermetic view quite appealing since he viewed his own action to be somehow participating in a greater process of world renewal. Underlying Renaissance Hermeticism is a subtle change from the Medieval understanding of man, the seeds of which were sown in Hellenistic Hermeticism.

What has changed is Man, now no longer only the pious spectator of God’s wonders in the creation, and worshipper of God himself above the creation, but Man the operator, Man who seeks to draw power from the divine and natural order.

Frances Yates and Paul Kristeller see the immediate influence of the Hermeticism of Ficino and Bruno in “Galileo’s claim that man’s knowledge of mathematics is different in quantity but not in kind from that of God Himself;” in the natural magic of Shakespeare’s plays; the political theory and action of Campanella; the growth of Rosicrucianism and perhaps Freemasonry; Sir Thomas Moore’s critique of Cartesian naturalism; and Francis Bacon’s New AtIantis. The influence of Hermetic gnosticism did not terminate in the early seventeenth century, however. We hope to show certain similarities between Renaissance Hermeticism and philosophic Idealism.


The origin of Idealist Humanism as an identifiable ideological movement may be found, Robert Tucker indicates, in Immanuel Kant’s (1724‑1804) “expression of a compulsion in man to achieve absolute moral self‑perfection.” As we have seen, however, there are traces of such a deification of man in Rousseau’s Legislator, and even earlier in Machiavelli’s Prince. Thus we believe that Tucker’s placement of the origins of Idealist Humanism in Immanuel Kant is much too late. The origins of Idealist Humanism, we believe, lie in the Renaissance revival of the Gnosticism and pantheism of Hermes Trismegistus. Nevertheless, Tucker is correct in seeing Kant as an advocate of a view of man as godlike. Adopting Kant’s distinctions between “noumenon,” a thing not an object of sense experience, and “phenomena,” objects of sense experience as they appear in consciousness, Tucker attributes to Kant a view of man as a “divided being a dual personality: homo noumenon and homo phenomenon.”  Homonoumenon is man’s real self, of which homo phenomenon is only an appearance. Man is thus torn between what he really is, and what he appears to be, but really is not completely. Kant, Tucker writes,

portrays man in a posture of anguished striving to actualize an image of himself as divinely virtuous. He writes that there would be no need for morality at all, no obligation or “moral compulsion,” if man were in actual fact a “holy being.” This is a manner of suggesting that morality is the compulsion to become such a holy being in actual act. It is a compulsion to become godlike.

Other passages in Kant’s works support such an interpretation. In the Critique of Practical Reason, for example, Kant writes that moral law leads us to religion because religion recognizes duties as divine commands. Our own moral action, then, must be conceived as an attempt to harmonize our own will with that of God’s, even though such harmony cannot be attained by finite beings.

Kant writes in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals that our ideal will which makes universal laws is the proper object of reverence. Kant also saw man’s will as his “proper” or real self, and this he called the “divine man within us.”

One of the political consequences of an anthropology such as Kant’s is to make “autonomy” the essential end of politics.

A good man is an autonomous man, and for him to realize his autonomy, he must be free. Self‑determination thus becomes the supreme political good. For its sake Kant is prepared to accept brutality; to it he subordinates all the other benefits of social life; self‑government, as a wall‑known slogan was later to put it, is better than a good government.

A basic timorousness or skepticism in his work, however, limited what otherwise would have been a tendency towards dogmatic political action in Kant himself. His dictum that the “thing‑in‑itself” cannot be known had first to be overcome if a radical political doctrine was to be formulated on Kantian territory. This breakthrough was, of course, not long in coming. Though Kant would argue that of “things‑in themselves” we can know only their appearances, the limitations thus imposed on critical philosophy were too restrictive to satisfy the intellectual appetites of George Wilhelm Hegel (1770‑1831). The Kantian categories of pure reason, Hegel argued, are unfit for speculative thought, which must of necessity ascend to the Absolute.

Of Kant’s admonition against attempting to know things‑in themselves, Hegel writes, “On the contrary, there is nothing we can know so easily. ” “Absolute idealism,” he thought, went far beyond the “subjective idealism” of Kant because it allows us to know the identity of the Absolute, to know the. “thing‑in‑itself,” to know the nature of God. This assertion creates problems. For if ultimately the object of science is to know God as He knows himself, then the one who knows is required to become like God. For the enterprise to succeed, the distinction between man and God and must be cast aside and replaced with a man‑god.


Like the Renaissance Hermeticists and ancient Gnostics, Hegel was persuaded that man was essentially divine and consequently was troubled by the effect upon what he viewed as the Christian religion “if human nature is absolutely severed from the divine, if no mediation between the two is conceded except in one isolated individual, if all man’s consciousness of the good and the divine is degraded to the dull and killing belief in a superior Being altogether alien to man.” Apparently the divinity of Christ, if that excluded the divinity of all men and gave to Christ alone the role of mediator between God and man, was too much for the young Hegel, who could not accept that man and God were different in kind. On this same subject he wrote:

The hill and the eye which sees it are object and subject, but between man and God, between spirit and spirit, there is no such cleft of objectivity and subjectivity; one is to the other an other only in that one recognizes the other; both are one.

What motivates such a formulation?

It was in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy that Hegel said his only desire was to know the nature of God.

Yet if man himself is divine, is that not an aspiration to know oneself?

Hegel’s discussion of the story of Adam in the Encyclopaedia in which he touches,,

upon the role philosophy must play in a world composed of essentially divine men, is suggestive of such an aspiration:

We are further told, God said, “Behold Adam is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” Knowledge is now spoken of as divine (das Gottliche) and not, as before, as something wrong and forbidden. Such words contain a confutation of the idle talk that philosophy pertains only to the finitude of the mind. Philosophy is knowledge, and it is through knowledge that man first realizes his original vocation, to be the image of God (ein Ebenbild Gottes zu sein).

Hegel is clearly saying that philosophy is not the means by which we manifest our love of truth. It is the vehicle of our libido to become “the image of God.” Man, of course, is not “the image of God,” in the sense in which Hegel intends it as the exact image (Ebenbild), unless Hegel was referring to an account other than that in Genesis which speaks of the Elohim having decided to make man “in our image.”

The crucial difference between Genesis 1:26 and Hegel’s formulation is the difference between the Hermetic‑Gnostic view, which identifies man with God absolutely (that is, sees him as divine), and the Classical‑Christian view, which sees him as a spiritual but imperfect human being.

Hegel’s interpretation of the account of Christ’s transfiguration is also of interest because its focus is not on Christ or the amazement of his witnesses, but rather on its ramifications for Peter’s vocation as a type of clairvoyance.

After Peter had recognized Jesus as divine in nature and thereby proved that he had a sense of the whole depth of man because he had been able to take a man as a son of God, Jesus gave over to him the power of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. What he bound was to be bound in Heaven, what he loosed was to be loosed in Heaven  also. Since Peter had become conscious of a God in one man, he must also have been able to recog­nize in anyone else the divinity or non‑divinity of his being, or to recognize it in a third party (in einem Dritten) as that party’s sensing of divinity or non­ divinity, i.e., as the strength of that party’s belief or disbelief . . . .”

Peter’s clairvoyance pertains to his ability to see God in other men who had faith. But faith in what’? The passage suggests that Peter’s faith was in himself and, to the degree that he too was divine, in himself as God.

Hegel shared this view of man with Johann Fichte (1762‑1814), who, especially in his later popular works, extended his inquiry beyond the critical development of problems in Idealism to exhortative expositions of the “self” as identical with the divine and thus made the “self” the foundation of Idealist speculation.

 Yet even in his earlier work, the Wissenschuftslehre (1794), it is clear that Fichte’s concept of the “self,” the “Ich,” is not restricted to the conscious intellect. Fichte saw a fundamental duality in the self, between the self which posits itself and the self which is posited.

His identification of self‑positing with reflection, which he called the act of the infinite self, restricted the understanding of Idealist Humanists of philosophical consciousness to consciousness of an infinite self which is the creator of the finite self. Fichte collapsed the distinction in reality between existence and being, immanence and transcendence, by including within one concept, the self, all reality. “The self demands that it encompass all reality and exhaust the infinite. This demand of necessity rests on the idea of the absolutely posited, infinite self; and this is the absolute self, of which we have been talking.

Fichte’s concept of a self which has burst the limitations of human consciousness and become infinite led Emile Brehier in his essay on Fichte in The Nineteenth Century: Period of Systems, 1800‑1850 to suggest that Fichte’s concept of the self can be understood as “a kind of metaphysical Manicheism.”

By this Brehier meant that the pre‑existent opposition between light and darkness, good and evil, which is the chief characteristic of Manichaean systems, is conceptually equivalent to Fichte’s exposition of the interplay between infinite and finite self. As in the system of Mani, he argued, the focus of Fichte’s thought lies in the ultimate triumphal resolution of hostile forces in the absolute ego.

These sentiments with their peculiar Gnostic cast ultimately cropped up in the work of the early English interpreter of German Idealism, Thomas Carlyle (1795‑1881), who wrote in one of his essays:

‘Neither say thou that proper Realities are wanting: for Man’s Life, now, as of old, is the genuine work of God; wherever there is a Man, a God also is revealed, and all that is Godlike: a whole epitome of the Infinite, with its meanings, lies enfolded in the Life of every Man. Only, alas, that the Seer to discern this same Godlike, and with fit utterance unfold it for us, is wanting, and may long be wanting.’

This passage, like that of Hegel, intentionally mixes the Genesis account of man as made (“’the genuine work of God'”) in the image of God, with the Hermetic‑Gnostic idea that man is literally God (” ‘wherever there is a Man, a God also is revealed'”). In Heroes and Hero‑Worship Carlyle recalled Novalis’ assertion, “`There is but one Temple in the Universe. . .and that is the Body of Man.'” This quotation is paralleled in the same passage by a fragment attributed to St. John Chrysostom, “The True Shekinah is Man!” In non‑Kabbalistic Jewish tradition the Shekhinah means God himself. Interpreting the above sentence in this sense, we read, “The true God is Man,” a statement clearly unacceptable to orthodox Judaism, but consistent with the Gnosticism of the Kabbalah.


Just as the ancient Gnostics, Renaissance Hermeticists and Idealist Humanists rejected man’s humanity in the assertion of his divinity, atheist humanism destroyed God in order to emphasize the “true” power of man. The former movements asserted man’s radical divinity, the latter that man himself was God, which, in terms diametrically opposed, is the same “truth.” Atheist humanism is the mirror‑like opposite reflection of Idealist Humanism.

This relationship is due in part, perhaps, to the nature of philosophical revolutions which tend to assert a position at the opposite extreme from the presently dominant school. But it may also be due, we suggest, to the presence of an equivalent engendering experience.

Ancient Gnosticism sought escape from a condition of unacceptable existence by the return of the divine spark to a radically hidden god. From the Gnostic perspective of a demonic world, both the world and man are rejected in the total absorption of consciousness in a hidden divine reality. The equilibrium of Classical philosophy in which man came to know his creaturely place in being by noetic experience of his participation in the divine nous is replaced with the Gnostic’s consuming experience of identification with a radically transcendent god.

Alternatively, the modern movements of Renaissance Hermeticism, Idealist Humanism, and atheist humanism project the unity of divine completeness into this world in a vision of a world free of contradictions. Both worlds of the Gnostics and of the modern political religions are, of course, “Second Realities,” for man and the world are not demonic, but are consubstantial with the divine. Nor is the world wholly divine or capable of becoming divine in some process of world immanent renovation. These modern movements, however, represent a revolt against reality which they construe as defective, with the distinction that in atheist humanism this revolt has reached its fullest historical development, not in the spiritual terms of the preceding movements, but in a radically desacralized mode. Atheist humanism is the secularization of the vision of Renaissance Hermeticism and philosophic Idealism of a totally spiritualized world. What is imminent in history, the atheist humanist believes, is a brave new exclusively material, though reconstituted, existence.

Fr. Henri DeLubac, S.J., coined the term “atheist humanism” to classify the disparate thought of those intellectuals who represented the new development of a type of humanism based upon the view that man is an autonomous being, independent of any obligation to a higher order because man is self-creating, that is, his own creator. Like Albert Camus, who observed that “to become God is to accept crime,” Lubac criticized atheist humanism for having led to the actual annihilation of human beings.

An intellectual movement which began by displacing God led not to the actualization of man’s humanity, but to the release of men from the limits which would have restrained them from murdering their fellow human beings in the name of humanity. Below the atheist humanist’s reduction of all reality to the material and the rejection of the spiritual aspects of man’s humanity, lay an engendering impulse to possess totally or master reality perceived as alien. This libido dominandi, this lust for power, Lubac argued, was essentially religious. Though atheist humanists were anti‑religious, they were so in a furiously religious way which tended to obscure a deeper moral or spiritual choice to live in a cosmos in which the only god is man. In Idealist Humanism man is believed to be actually divine; in the world of atheist humanism, absent of divine reality, man becomes god by default.

Ludwig Feuerbach: Idealist Humanism began as a movement with Renaissance Hermeticism and Passed through Kant, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. With Hegel’s death in 1831, it ceased to develop further in the reflective channels in which it formerly flowed. The peculiar mixture of philosophy and theology in Idealist Humanism which constituted a revolution in religion led to a religion of revolution.

The man whose works marks this transition in modern political religions was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804‑1872), a student of Hegel.

Feuerbach felt that the moment in which he lived was a new epoch, the “epoch of the downfall of Christianity.

The place of belief has been taken by unbelief and that of the Bible by reason. Similarly, religion and the Church have been replaced by politics, the heaven by the earth, prayer by work, hell by material need, and the Christian by man.

Given this fact of Western culture, Feuerbach advocated that the epoch of the downfall of Christianity be brought to its completion by placing man in the position formerly occupied by God.

Only thus can we free ourselves from the contradiction that is at present poisoning our innermost being‑the contradiction between our life and thought on one hand, and a religion that is fundamentally opposed to them on the other. For religious we must once again become if politics is to become our religion.

The new god of the religion of politics, of an orientation utterly this‑worldly, could only be man. Throughout Feuerbach’s works, this atheist insight is

stated, restated, expounded, elaborated upon, and further developed. Perhaps because this was the idee fixe of his intellection, if not his psychological obsession, no scholar has argued that Feuerbach stands in the first rank of nineteenth century philosophy.

Karl Barth, in his “introductory Essay” to a new edition of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, calls this principal thesis “almost nauseatingly, trivial. ” All the same, Feuerbach’s impact on the group of radical Hegelians, which included Karl Marx, was striking. This influence was due to both the new atheist humanism of Feuerbach and to its corollary, his critique of philosophic Idealism.

In his essay, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy,” Feuerbach argued that Hegel had imprisoned the intellect in a system of reason, which was not immediate intellection, the “intellect within us,” but abstract reason, a lifeless fabrication of reason in its concrete form. Similarly in his “Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy,” Feuerbach argued that Hegelian philosophy had “alienated man from himself’ by positing “the essence of man outside of man.”

Karl Marx, following Feuerbach, wrote:

Free yourselves from the concepts and prepossession of existing speculative philosophy if you want to get at things differently, as they are, that is to say, if you want to arrive at the truth. And there is no other road for you to truth and freedom except that leading through the stream of fire. Feuerbach is the purgatory of the present times.

What are the characteristics of Feuerbach’s atheist humanism?

Feuerbach thought that every being is infinite.  In “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy,” he wrote, “The being of man is no longer a particular and subjective, but a universal being, for man has the whole universe as the object of his drive for knowledge.” Man lusts to know, he actualizes himself in his drive to know the universe, and this actuality for Feuerbach is the sign that man is not limited “Reason is existence objective to itself as its own , end; the ultimate tendency of things. That which is an object to itself is the highest, the final being; that, which has the power over itself is almighty.”

In criticism, Karl Barth wrote that Feuerbach ignored two important realities in this assertion: man will die, and man is evil. That Feuerbach ignored such basic realities “accounts for the shallowness of his explanation of religion.” Nevertheless, this drive for knowledge was the foundation of Feuerbach’s political thought. Christianity, by displacing man’s true humanity in a transcendent God, gave Christians another‑worldly orientation. Their “republic” was in heaven, thus they did not need one here in this world. With the abolition of Christianity, man could now find paradise in this world. That shift would require a philosophy which had transvalued the sum mum bonum of Christian philosophy. In the new epoch which is to replace the Christian, we will have “the right to constitute a republican state.”

For speculative thought, man, Feuerbach wrote, is the summum bonum. This anthropological view he called “anthropotheism,” a philosophy which sees man as the ground of being. In the age given to atheist human‑ q ism, therefore, the state will perform the role in the development of mankind as an “infinite being.” The role was equivalent to providence, he thought, creating a context of universality for men who see themselves as the ultimate reality.

It is therefore this practical atheism that provides the states with what holds them together; human beings come together in the state because here they are without God, because the state is their god, which is why it can justifiably claim for itself the divine predicate of “majesty.”

With acute psychological insight, Feuerbach saw that politics would become a type of religion for men who rejected Christianity because it stifled their lust to actualize their “true” nature in political action.

Karl Marx (18I8‑1883): The new religion of atheist humanism was adopted by Karl Marx, who followed Feuerbach in his rejection of Christianity. Yet Marx would go further than Feuerbach, whom he criticized for his “idealism,” because he had not completely shaken himself free from Hegel’s yoke. Feuerbach spoke of man, but did not realize, Marx said, that man is a “social product.” There was much good in Feuerbach, of course, but Marx was critical because, he said,. Feuerbach never went beyond “isolated surmises.” Nevertheless, Marx concurred in Feuerbach’s criticism of theology. In notes to his doctoral dissertation Marx argued that ontological proofs of the existence of God are merely proofs of the existence of “human self-consciousness. “In his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” he wrote that gods are only the effect of “an aberration of the human mind. ” Yet he was perplexed by the etiological question of origins first asked by the Greek natural philosophers to the extent that he refused to grapple with the philosophic problems it proposed. We must expel the notion of creation of the world, he said Man is his own self creator. If we do not, then we must logically admit that man is not autonomous.

Marx was spiritually unprepared to accept what he could not honestly deny: that man could not have created himself. So he called the philosophic question of the arche of being an “abstraction.”  Abstractions, such as the question of genesis, says Marx, have become impossible for “socialist man.” Socialist man “has evident and incontrovertible proof of his self-creation, his own formation process.  The willful assertion of a new type of man who turns his back on philosophy in the knowledge that he creates himself is the basis of Marx’s humanism and his “communism.”

Marx wanted to go beyond the critique of religion to engage in actual revolution. In the. “Theses on Feuerbach” he wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it. “

Like many of his generation for whom a scholarly career was not the traditional means by which to master an intellectual discipline and impart it to the next generation, Marx instead wanted to change the world by radically revolutionary means. The basis of his concept of revolution was his anthropology.

“Man,” he wrote, “lives by nature,” in the sense that nature was an autonomous realm, independent of any higher order. Thus to live by nature, “means that nature is his body with which he must remain in perpetual process in order not to die. That the physical and spiritual life of man is tied up with nature is another way of saying that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature. ” As a “species‑being” man’s labor is an end in itself, by which Marx meant that man’s relationship to nature produces man as an “active species‑life. “The object of labor is thus the objectification of man’s species‑life: he produces himself not only intellectually, as in consciousness, but also actively in a real sense and sees himself in a world he made. ” Because in bourgeois society man is alienated from his labor by capital and private property, man lives in a condition of alienation. This analysis of estrangement formed the basis of Marx’s call for a revolution which would liberate man as a species from the destruction he experiences in presently constituted society.

Marx develops his theory of revolution in The German Ideology (1845‑46).

Because “communism” is the restoration of man, he writes, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs still to be established, not an ideal to which reality (will) have to adjust. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs.”91 By abolishing private property, “the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished to the extent that history becomes world history. “92 The class that will carry out this liberation is the class, which, in the pronounced degradation of man by the development of the productive forces that subjugate it, develops “communist consciousness.” Such a practical revolutionary consciousness not criticism, is “the driving force of history.

This communism as completed naturalism is humanism, as completed humanism it is naturalism. It is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self‑affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.94

Marx has created a political religion based on the metastatic expectation that a violent revolution will overcome the contradictions of human existence. As such, there are difficulties with his formula.

Marx claimed his “communism” was “scientific.”

In the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” he based his conclusions on what he believed were economic analyses of political economy; but, as we have suggested, they are actually the conclusions appropriate to a radical atheist anthropology. Moreover, from what source does Marx obtain information about the ultimate goal of history? Who gave Marx the secret to the “riddle”?

With respect to the promised benefits of communism, are they worth the price in murder and human sacrifice that must be paid? If we search in the writings of Marx for reflection on these problems, we find only the imperative that we stop our questioning, for our questions are “abstractions.”

This occlusion of questions which might forestall the atheist humanist’s desire to destroy the world so that he can build it anew in his own image is equivalent to the magical occlusion of man’s creaturely status by the Gnostics and Renaissance Hermeticists. All allowed a vision of transfigured reality to block out the reality of creaturely being. Because of the depth of this disease of the spirit, it presents to public order in the modern world the supreme challenge of disease of the soul impermeable to rational argument.

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