Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pessimism, Nihilism, Dualism, and Hope

Just within a day or two last week I encountered the words pessimism, nihilism, and dualism applied to old Gnosticism by two authors—Henry Corbin and Hans Jonas. Jonas also applied the words to existentialism. Corbin was inspired by Heidegger’s phenomenological approach. He studied Heidegger for a while but went beyond that philosopher’s conclusions. Jonas came out of Heidegger’s school directly and also remained an existentialist throughout his life. Jonas’ essay, the concluding chapter of his The Gnostic Religion, makes the point that Gnosticism arose in the same historical circumstances as existentialism, namely a cultural disaster. Gnosticism, as Jonas saw it, was one answer to the collapse of the Graeco-Roman social system, a system based on a faith in a Cosmic Order, thus the belief in coherent relations between parts and the whole, the governed and the ruler. That order was in trouble, and minorities reacted. Existentialism was inspired, if “inspired” is the word to use, by the collapse of religious faith under the onslaught of modern science. I found Corbin’s comments in a presentation on comparative religion reprinted in The Voyage and the Messenger; that book holds a miscellany of his writings. Corbin uses the word pessimism by way of echoing the common characterization of Gnosticism, but then he parenthetically inserts the word dualism as a qualifier; in his view the Gnostic position was only pessimistic about this dispensation, not about Reality taken as a whole.

Dualism, in this context, is a technical term. It refers to systems of thought in which Good and Evil are both active and almost equivalent forces, thus Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Mazdaism. The Gnostics, most assertively, dismissed the entire cosmos as the product of an incompetent demiurge, hence they were the most pessimistic about this world. As, indeed, the existentialists are too. The Gnostic believed in a very distant sort of God who had no active involvement in this world—and certainly did not create it.

Corbin and Jonas were both men of my father’s generation. Corbin died as a charismatic, almost mystical figure. Jonas went on from his study of Gnosticism to develop an elevated ethical doctrine which, ultimately, is a refined form of existentialism. Reading his later books I felt the cold airs of Stoic endurance—a genuinely sincere conviction, high moral courage, but also the absence of anything that resonated with anything within me—somewhat like watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey, in which we are invited by the displayed emotions and the tone to worship—but to worship what amounts to a lot of suns and nebulae.

Interesting times I’ve lived in. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that our times have not yet genuinely felt the pessimism (dualism—as Corbin might remark in parentheses) that the Gnostics felt. Why? The answer is wealth. In our culture throughout the last century and continuing to this day, the social order has not yet begun to show its cracks as deeply as it did in the days of ancient Greek and Rome. Hence existentialism was/is a minority reaction to a change in culture on the part of those inclined to embrace the spirit of the times while, at the same time, sensitive to what it portends. Progressivism is the modern expression of hope. The real pessimism-dualism will appear when the infrastructure of modern life begins to manifest our one-sided emphasis on the material in more obvious ways. And that is still in the future unless—as in the case of Henry Corbin—we make the transition to a more comprehensive understanding of reality before the old one really begins to fall apart.


  1. I always assumed that gnosticism could not accept the notion of an imperfect world being created by a spiritual entity that is supposed to embody perfection. The demiurge--the force of evil--was a necessary gnostic creation as the creator of the world, which, to the gnostics is material and therefore evil.

    Existentialism, at least the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, was more of a reaction to the static notion that all humans could be homogenized into a monolithic essence, which, in Christian theological terms is the soul.

    The existentialists focused very clearly on the uniqueness and evolving nature of humans whose final essence would not be determined until the full balance sheet of our lives is completed.

    A truly existential moment is our very own unique, internalized moment devoid of what is supposed to happen or an ideal of what others think should happen or who we should be as opposed to who we authentically are.

  2. A symphathetic modern take on Gnosticism could certainly be phrased as you phrase yours, especially if held by a person who, like us, was brought up in the big C. But the Gnostics, it seems to me, were less moved by philosophical considerations and more by revulsion at their world. No doubt there were Gnostics who would have put it like that, but then they would have been a minority among their own.

    You speak of a human nature "whose final essence would not be determined until the full balance of our lives is completed." If we stick with Sartre, anyway, when that balance is completed, there is no one there to determine anything. I find genuine value in the phenomenological approach of existentialism. I've written on subject on my "nobody reads it" site, Borderzone.

    Thanks for your interesting comments to one of those posts of mine that rarely get comments.