Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gnosticism, Goethe, and the Purposes of Man

I was listening to a lecture on Goethe's Faust, and the lecturer talked about how this was a completely new (at the time) conception of the purpose of man. In most previous conceptions in literature and philosophy, the focus of existence was on being. Cogito, ergo sum, as Descartes has so famously said and many have parroted.

Faust, in his deal with Mephistopheles, he agrees that the devil can have his soul if he ever once says "it is sufficient" and wants to stay at one spot with one experience forever, or has had enough of experiences. Until then, he wants to continue to have experiences, both good and evil, on and on. Faust wins the bet, because he never stops seeking after new experiences. In Faust, the focus is not on being, but doing.

This is an idea that comes out of Romanticism, and which is dealt with in a number of 19th century occult orders, as well as the literature and philosophy of the time. It's no surprise that after the material advocacy of the Enlightenment, a backlash should occur which gives rise to passion, intuition, mysticism, supernaturalism, and gnosticism. At the same time as Faust is being worked on and published, Bernard Raymond Fabre-Palaprat is reconstituting the Johannite Church. Martinez De Pasqually has instituted the
Elus-Cohens branch of Martinsim at the same time.

It is an idea that appeals to me, because it is part of the Gnostic ethos: Becoming. Escaping. Doing. So many people focus on the dualism of Gnosticism: Matter evil, spirit good. However, they miss the active part of it: If matter is evil, and I am matter, I need to become good.

Early gnostics denied the material, and shed it. Ascetics abounded, and still do within the gnostic movement. It's a further elucidation of Goethe's idea: the accumulation of material possessions is not the goal; experience is to be sought. Faust never once asked Mephistopheles for riches, a mansion, or the like.

The early gnostics thought that the the only way to experience the divine was to deny the material all together. But so many thinkers have expanded on this idea since the 4th century. Denial of the material is not the only way. Thoreau and Emerson pointed us back to nature, to experience the Divine. The Hermetics point us to the elements, and the planets, and understanding and control of these phenomena as experience of the Divine. Goethe points to experience itself as experience of the Divine. Tantra encourages us to experience the material, and thus experience the divine. Sufism with it's ecstatic dancing does the same.

This Romantic idea of experience and at least indifference and at most renunciation of the material arises periodically in the West. Usually in times of great affluence, presaging a fall, do the mystics, romantics, and gnostics arise, pointing us away from the material distractions of Abraxas and back to the experience of God in the World. We are seeing a resurgence of Gnosticism today because of the very materialism around us. The constant need for the latest toy, the best or most unique items, etc.

The Apostolic Johannite Church does not subscribe to the ancient Gnostic idea that the material is evil. The kingdom of heaven is spread all around us, if we had but the eyes to see. And it is the development of those eyes, the experience of seeing God in the World, that we seek.

1 comment:

Donald Donato said...

Ahhh...Faust! As you know, one of my favorties...

Right on re: dualism. That is one of the reasons I am a Johannite and not a "Gnostic." I find that last term somewhat of an albatross.