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I used the word gnosis today, and I was asked what it meant; since I think gnosis is a word everyone should know, I’ll dedicate this post to it.


Because it has ‘gnosis’ in it and looks ’70’s, I’ll allow it.

The basic idea of gnosis is that it’s a concept that can only be understood through experience. It can’t be verbally expressed or ‘taught’ explicitly. It can’t be known in any way other than experience; there is no alternate route, no second-hand knowledge. You don’t know what is meant by that thing until you have gnosis of it; afterwards, you know. There’s no in-between. Knowledge of the concept and experience of it are equivalent.

The spiritual movement most closely aligned with this concept, down to the very word used to designate them, the Gnostics, deserve some space of their own.

Time for a metaphysical digression. To do that, let’s just assume there is some kind of metaphysical ‘other’ out there, structuring reality. We could also be atheists, but for the purposes of this explanation, consider religion.

Religion has this problem of excessive cheerfulness. If you want to put it negatively, you could call it the problem of suffering. If we live in a world that is the best of all possible worlds, then why is so much that is wrong with it? As a culture, our short-take version of this is that there is good and there is evil, but on balance, things are more good than bad; life on Earth, our human life, is basically good.

The Gnostics have a different take.

In gnosticism, reality is basically negative. There’s none of this ‘everything is going to turn out all right,’ ‘if I had to do it again, I would’ stuff. The Gnostics were basically mystics, and they took Judeo-Christianity as a sort of departure point to construct their own metaphysical system.

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Everything won’t be fine.

In Gnostic theology, there are rulers that have been appointed over the material world – the Archons – constantly scanning the horizon, suppressing the divine spark. They are not your friends; they are not even what we would call good, according to this system. They keep us in the prison of matter, and it is our job – through gnosis, through diligent effort, through concentrated spiritual exercises – to break out of it. Reality is a kind of nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken.

In the Gnostic view.

So now let’s try to tie this back to a more contemporary understanding of our world.

Buddhists have been called ‘the Gnostics of the East’ for this reason, because human life is more an opportunity to attain the True Good – enlightenment, after this life – than an end in itself. To the extent that life is samsara, suffering, and we must liberate ourselves from it, this is similar to a Gnostic understanding.


A contemporary comic book take on this. From The Invisibles.

In a much looser sense, when people speak about the structural causes of unhappiness in our society – which, in degraded form, are described (and also criticized) as ‘conspiracies’ – they can be said to at least partake in a kind of Gnostic weltanschauung. There is a push in our culture towards smoothing over the edges, making your peace with the power structure, and, in the end, participating in consensus reality by promulgating it yourself. There’s a sense that things that are too depressing should be suppressed, because Be Happy.

Gnostic impulses are a kind of rebellion against this, a refusal to stand down, and an attempt to grok life, however depressing, through the most accurate possible lens.

And for that,  I love them.


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