This subject belongs under the category of the epochal sea change of the West, a topic of a couple of previous postings of mine on this blog.
A major feature of that sea change has been the rise of Neo-Gnosticism, or ‘modern Gnosticism’ as it is more commonly known (a term used by the philosopher Eric Voegelin, among others).
The ‘Neo-’ of course implies an original Gnosticism. We may in fact discern three distinct phases in the history of Gnosticism:
1) Ancient, or classical, Gnosticism
2) Heterodox Christian and Judaic Gnosticism in medieval Europe and satellite regions
3) Neo-Gnosticism or modern Gnosticism.
Before we unpack these three points, we should note at the outset that Gnosticism is a pathology peculiar to the West, insofar as it is an existential response to the differentiation in consciousness which is Western. One does find Gnostic mythologies also far afield in Persia and central Asia—and it may well be that Gnosticism originated there—but this may be chalked up to the perennially liminal relationship between the West and the ‘Orient’, insofar as the ‘West’ is not an impermeable historical entity but has always had relatively porous borders through which its substance and forms have been informed by exotic elements—and indeed, even its borders have been formed, and informed, through a paradoxical process of a crystallization of self-definition combined with a fungible absorption of the Other. (Note: this particular paradox of self-definition is not unique to the West, but is probably universal to all cultures whose discrete cohesiveness rises to a threshhold of becoming discernible.) At any rate, even if Gnosticism was germinated in Persia or even north of Persia somewhere in central Asia possibly in the 7th or 6th centuries B.C.E., its major locus shifted Westward by the time of the Ecumenic Age (roughly beginning with Alexander the Great, 4th century B.C.E.), and that transplantation only increased in demographic and cultural significance with each passing century after that.
Now, to return to our unpacking of the three points:
1) Ancient, or classical, Gnosticism: an umbrella term for an amorphous nebula of eclectic pseudo-philosophical schools and quasi-mystic religious cults that seemed to have begun to appear in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor areas beginning about 300 years before Christ, increasing with each passing century. By the time that Christianity was beginning to spread as an underground movement in the late 1st century C.E., many Gnostic manifestations appeared using Christian symbolisms. Soon thereafter, the Gnostic influence increased to such an extent that significant Christian heresies could be said to be Gnostic in part, or as a whole. The borders of orthodox Christianity were not immune to the Gnostic virus, and Gnostic tendencies infiltrated and informed some aspects of orthodox Christianity (Voegelin among others have noted Gnostic ‘tendencies’ in the New Testament itself, notably the Gospel of John) , insofar as orthodox Christianity was a work-in-progress, with a self-definition in creative flux, not a done deal from the get-go. (Indeed, we can say that orthodox Christianity is characterizable by this dynamic as a perennial constant, at least on one level—though, again, this is paradoxical and therefore does not obviate the concordant reality of a thing that has to be there in the first place in order to be changing.) The increasing crystallization of orthodoxy through the first six centuries after Christ—given an enormous boost by the conversion of the Roman Empire itself in the 4th century C.E.—which at times dealt with heterodoxy with a heavy hand—tended to have the effect of pushing Gnosticism underground. This paved the way for the second phase in the career of Gnosticism.
2) Heterodox Christian and Judaic Gnosticism in medieval Europe and satellite regions (i.e., the Balkans and Asia Minor): Gnosticism throughout the Middle Ages (roughly the 6th century C.E. to the 16th century C.E.) basically displayed the simplex process of beginning as a relatively suppressed patchwork of underground movements and slowly increasing in influence on thought and culture as the centuries went along. By the time of the Protestant Reformation which—due to many factors unrelated to Gnosticism—introduced some radical and convulsive solvents to the structures that had more or less successfully (decreasing in capability as the centuries went along) kept a lid on the heterodox undercurrents of which Gnosticism was a major part. Gnosticism in this new environment was, essentially, the incipient stage of the ultimate dissolution of Christendom, and began its modern career of coming out of the closet so to speak and spreading with increasing influence, in myriad flavors and degrees, throughout the sociocultural spheres of the modern West. Of course, this new vitality and ebullience of Gnosticism beginning in the early modern period was not met without resistance: it in fact significantly colored the ongoing debate and tension between an increasingly reactionary Church—and soon thereafter and increasingly reactionary Christianity in general—and an increasingly eclectic, syncretistic and unavoidably philodoxic secular sphere. The secular sphere during the modern period, it should be noted, has manifested the interesting paradox of simultaneously nourishing this syncretistic philodoxy which in turn allowed various flavors of Gnosticisms to run rampant, while at the same time developing a sociocultural health and strength that fostered the intellectual infrastructure of a parallel progress in noetic science. These two paradoxical parallel tracks did not run smoothly—there have often ensued struggles and conflicts—nor have these tracks allowed for equal spheres of power and influence: there has been a complex process of waxing and waning, relative ascendancy of the one at the expense of the other, regional or localized entrenchments of the one or the other, strange symbiotic relations between the two, and much public and intellectual confusion of the issues throughout the modern period. Notwithstanding what from one perspective is a fabulous and grand and protracted mess in the ongoing state of true philosophy throughout the modern period, the very fact that the cultivation and progress of noetic science has been possible in the modern West to the extent that it in fact has, demonstrates a decidedly noetic fiber to the texture of the modern West, and therefore one cannot roundly condemn the West to hopeless ‘decline’ without being simplistic—and indeed, without succumbing to the temptation of a Gnostic explanation of history.
3) Neo-Gnosticism or modern Gnosticism: in our previous explication in #2, we have unavoidably overstepped our bounds into the modern period, insofar as the law of paradoxical fungibility applies as much to epochs as it does to cultures (cf. supra). Suffice it to say that the third phase of Gnosticism continues the dynamic of the second phase, with a dramatic increase in intensity. Gnosticism began erupting in cataclysmic bouts of sociopolitical expression in the French Revolution by the late 18th century, and a century later in Soviet Communism, German Nazism and European Fascism in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, there emerged the Gnosticism of the Cultural Revolution by the mid-20th century, from which was born PC multiculturalism, which currently is one major reason why the 21st-century West remains irrationally hobbled in its ability to defend itself from Islam ideologically, politically and—insofar as wars cannot be successfully prosecuted without ideological and political support—militarily. This dramatic intensification of the dynamic of the second phase has concomitantly continued the paradox, such that significant sectors of noetic health have continued to grow in strength and health, resulting in an overall configuration where noesis and Gnosticism are each represented in the socipolitical mosaic—on one level roughly equally, on another level with Gnosticism (mainly in its form of PC multiculturalism) decidedly dominant.
This curious paradox may be expressed thusly: there is a third term aside from noesis and Gnosticism, almost a third ‘invisible partner’, which provides an overarching umbrella in which Gnosticism and noesis may thrive and jockey for influence, even when one or the other gains the upper hand. The fact that this third term exists at all as a supportive superstructure allowing for the ongoing progress of noetic health and strength suggests a noetic input into the third term. On the other hand, Gnosticism would not be as strongly supported by the superstructure as it is were there not a significant degree of opacity, philodoxy and naivety inhering in the regime of the superstructure, undermining any sense to the conclusion that it is noetically directed. The paradox reaches up to the next stage, into the third term itself—perhaps suggesting that the third term is a magnificently accidental, or incidental, excrudescence of the primary paradox between noesis and Gnosticism. Or perhaps this third term, this superstructure, is simply—but still magnificently—the manifestation of the inherent, essential, indissoluble, mysterious paradox of the nature of the West itself.