The Gnostics were distinguished as the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name… (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume One)
Years ago I had a discussion with a friend who argued that no mean or self-centred purpose lay behind Gnostic beliefs. Their ideas, he said, were a sign of intellectual purity; for what material reason could cause people to believe something so obviously otherworldly and good?
The Gnostics were ugly. Their bodies dominated by terrible sores, scabs, bruises and defective body parts. Wealthy? Yes. Learned? Yes. But ultimately a social eyesore, best locked away in the libraries of distant villas, on the borders of the empire.[i]
Wouldn’t it be natural for them to believe that goodness is within, that it is materially invisible, and that only they, in their secret cults of ugliness, can fathom and explore it? And so begins their ideological war, removing the beauty from life; pulling out teeth and hair; scratching the rich fine cheeks of young women, mutilating the men and tattooing them with obscenities… Not that they recommend these actions. Oh no. They are far too good, too pure and nice, too cultured and civilised, for that. Rather, it is their influence, the atmosphere their teachings create, that leads the beautiful people to deface themselves; to rip their clothes and smear their faces with muck and dirt; those once fashionable signs of mystic grace.
Gnosticism: the repulsive’s sect.[ii]
Or here’s another theory: the Gnostics were the refined intellectuals of their day. Gibbon, influenced by the ideas of his time, particularly Montesquieu, ascribes their beliefs to the climate:
… their principal founders seem to have been natives of Syria or Egypt, where the warmth of the climate disposes the mind and the body to indolent and contemplative devotion. The Gnostics blended with the faith of Christ many sublime but obscure tenets, which they derived from oriental philosophy, and even from the religion of Zoroaster, concerning the eternity of matter, the existence of two principles, and the mysterious hierarchy of the invisible world. As soon as they launched out into that vast abyss, they delivered themselves to the guidance of a disordered imagination; and as the paths of error are various and infinite, the Gnostics were imperceptibly divided into more than fifty particular sects…
What we have here is a description of a specific kind of intellectual, who loses himself in metaphysical speculation; and which the Enlightenment, of which Gibbon was a major part, was opposed – everything must succumb to the experimental method; all will be science or it will be nonsense. David Hume, in his more generous mood, as we have seen,[iii] was more circumspect, recognising the need for metaphysics, but wary of its dangers; its vast emptiness; suggesting instead that we pay attention only to what we can know of reality; those tough and often impenetrable facts.
But Gibbon may give us a clue to a certain kind intellectual, of which we see more and more, particularly in the humanities departments of our universities, that other warm climate, whose entire thought is pure metaphysics; though dressed in the latest fashionable materialism – Post-modernism.
In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire the wealthy and cultured would have a vested interest in distancing themselves from the reality around them: don’t look too closely at the source of your wealth, the means by which your leisure is secured, their newly minted Christian conscience would have said. Whatever you do, do not stare facts in the face! And how easy it all becomes, to lose oneself within one’s own labyrinths of thought, of which only other cultured minds can enter…
In our universities over the last generation the radical academics talk of the power of the text, and of how language ensnares us: they become, or so they believe,[iv] just like everyone else, victims of the capitalist system, just like the cleaners and bar attendants earning less than the minimum wage. How easy it is not to see! Even when they clean your computer and office floor… Better to explain life away, with invisible gods and forces that are beyond our control; the market and globalization…
The complexity of the metaphysics inevitably attracts and compels their attention – only the initiated can understand their ugly jargon and disabled sentences.[v] And the excitement! A mind racing around its abstractions can reach speeds that a field worker or laboratory assistant will never master: facts, such boring things, act as necessary breaks on our imaginings; they are a check on our reason; but they are mundane, and often boring; and their accumulation can be time consuming and slow. Too slow for the busy academic; racing around town on his Vespa.
How extraordinary, when you think of the natural proclivities of intellectuals, is the rise of the modern world; of Descartes, Locke and Hume. They had a certain modesty about the world, a scepticism about their own ideas. They are intellectuals that ultimately cast a doubt on reason; that most mystic of all faiths. How was that possible? Where did they come from? How is it they could see the beauty of the world, and want to question it…
[i] The Samuel Johnsons of their day:
"[Who was] scarred by scrofula, partially blind and deaf, afflicted by obsessive thoughts as well as a constitutional melancholy which he claimed made him ‘mad all his life, at least not sober’, prone to compulsive movements, rituals and vocalisations (some have recently diagnosed him with Tourette’s syndrome)…" (Helen Deutsch, Pay Me For It)