Gnosticism, or the Gnostic religion, is the term given to a set of beliefs clearly presenting the religious phenomenon known as Gnosis as pivotal for salvation. Gnosis, plainly defined, is experiential knowledge of oneself and reality so as to more directly know the transcendental God out of which everything emanates. Jacob Needleman writes that this “sacred tradition can be defined as the science of transmitting truth by degrees so that it can enter correctly and harmoniously into the human psyche. To this end, a tradition both withholds and reveals at the same time…There is always a secret.” Gnosis is thus identified as the secret knowledge of who we are-- our purpose and place-- at the same time providing insight into the nature of the observable universe surrounding us. In this way, Gnosis refers to the "know" (Gnos) of the exhortation "Know thyself". While the term Gnosticism often refers to the Gnostic systems of the 1st-3rd century A.D. that established clear distinctions between the transcendent god and the creator of the world, Gnosticism could certainly encompass the developing body and currents of esoteric thought which hold divine knowledge to be the means by which one comes to know the psyche’s own faculties regarding self-actualization, ultimately leading to apotheosis as when an individual recognizes the divinity inherent in their self.
Whereas Gnosticism and Western Esotericism are intertwined in their outlook concerning the nature of reality (i.e., accentuating the role of personal understanding instead of reliance upon pure doctrine), the two are markedly different. Gnosticism is a subset of the larger, more multifaceted Western Esoteric tradition since it is itself a specific religion that holds the basic idea that a divine spark resides in each of us, in need of being awakened and reintegrated into the Fullness (pleroma) of divine Being. Ancient Gnostic myths often personified wisdom in the form of a female Sophia, the supreme transcendent God’s emanation out of which an imperfect, evil Demiurge constructed the material universe, governed by the Archons, to imprison and torment her. One’s origin and destination of the inner self can only be recollected through an esoteric knowledge (Gnosis) that alone achieves salvation, allowing one to escape from the created world and reunite with the Spirit world.
This is in contradistinction with many of the Esoteric traditions which actively seek to engage with the material world (i.e. Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry…) so as to clearly understand the symbols mediating knowledge of this transcendental world, and thereby ultimately “perfect” the arcane substance from which everything is borne, altering the natural world through personal mastery of it. As this ability to manipulate reality is often received with suspicion, sometimes outright hostility, these teachings are more often than not reserved for the mystic elite in secrecy, denoting a “secret doctrine” usually transmitted orally (e.g. the Kabala) instead of being captured in written dogmas. While later traditions, such as those of the Renaissance synthesis, Theosophy, or the New Age, may perhaps stress one’s own thoughts and feelings, they maintain an esoteric quality as opposed to a Gnostic one, primarily for the reason that the Gnostic religion is defined as articulating certain guidelines that together provide a list of general tenets to adhere to, while Esotericism includes Gnosticism as a current in a much larger spiritual tradition recognizing the finitude of phenomenal activity and the Spirit that transcends it, to be communicated to those initiated in particular sects rather than universally professed in an exoteric manner.
Since the Essenes, one of three sectarian groups (the others being the Sadducees and Pharisees) thought to include the Qumran community of the Dead Sea scrolls, the Theraputae of Egypt spoken of by Philo of Alexandria, and the Nazoreans centered in northern Palestine often affiliated with James the Just, the Gnostic influence has appeared in various developing forms, perhaps most strikingly with Christ remaining a central figure in most of these traditions. Besides the initiation of neophytes into a relatively small community employing strict moral codes, the progressive idea that history is heading towards its own self-fulfillment can be seen in the effects of Gnostic consciousness on European intellectual life.
Gnostic, microcosmic man is able to heal the sick organism of the world by salvaging the divine sparks of life, bringing them through the 7 planetary spheres of the cosmos back home, using Gnosis to ease this passage. Likewise, the Corpus Hermeticum blessed man with creative powers to free himself from the bonds of a hierarchical universe, so that imperfect creation found itself in need of improvement with modern science, like the philosopher’s stone that was supposed to perfect it. The Magnum Opus included the gradual guiding of the material prima towards a redeemed state of perfect harmony (the healing lapis philosophorum, or philosopher’s stone) made in the image of creation, whose goal it was to perfect the matter fallen from unity into the external world of opposition. As the Gnostic spark of light strove for divine knowledge reflected in the individual soul’s struggle for salvation, Paracelsus and Bohme drew the picture of a divine nature, stimulating its later romantic worship: “The romantic conceptions of nature are based on the identity of nature and spirit; the laws of nature are supposed to correspond to spiritual laws.” (MES 108) In each of these cases, Imagination is revealed to be the creative capacity and structuring force to intuit the forms of the Real world, extracting Truth from the shadowy likeness of the apparent world to draw this external world into the individual and reshape them both. Through magic, the cosmic unity of occult forces mastered by microcosmic man, this opposition between illusion and reality could be rectified. As the esoteric spiritual traditions began to inspire mainstream culture, culminating in Isaac Newton’s ascension to the Presidency of the Royal Society (founded in 1660 on the Rosicrucian idea of an invisible college encouraging man’s highest ideals regarding the nature of the cosmos), subjectivity became recognized as the formative influence within the process of nature, reemphasizing the importance of personal knowledge based on experience of the divine.
Gnosis would then not just be personal knowledge/experience, but the correct or relevant knowledge needed to transcend the material world. This is perhaps the difference between Gnosis and Esotericism, Gnosis being a specific procedure, while esotericism is the domain of thought where the inner realm is emphasized. Formal Gnosticism occurred in time as a counter-movement to exoteric Christianity, primarily concerned with literal interpretations of Christian doctrine rather than the achievement of Gnosis. In terms of the relationship between esoteric and exoteric, the exoteric institution of the church became a vehicle used to promote certain esoteric ideas whose time had come to be revealed to humanity, rather than the original esoteric communities that emphasized correct interpretation and spiritual training. A fine line should be drawn when comparing Gnosticism with other esoteric practices. The fundamental difference between the Gnostic and the esoteric is that the former often is thought to revile the created world and body while the later doesn't necessarily so. All of these traditions are concerned with attaining gnosis, or seeing through that reality with which we are presented so they are all equally pursuing gnosis regardless of their official titles.
Thinking deeply on the accuracy of the distinction between Gnosticism and more general esoteric practices leads to the question of whether or not we need to so narrowly understand the gnostic impulse toward heavenliness over earthiness as literally world-hating? As Jacob Needlemen makes clear in his writing, pure literal mindedness only leads further into our own illusions. By broadening one's gaze when considering the Gnostics' world hating tendencies, one could also understand these desires to be rooted in an archetypal impulse to “overcome” the world as it exists through our projections, to stand on the ground of pure being rather than a world that is little more than complex systems of projection. Richard Smoley writes in Forbidden Faith that
“this liberation of the true ‘I’ from the world does not make moral behavior irrelevant; it makes it easier. Detachment from externalities makes it easier to love one’s fellow humans, because one then is free from wanting things and nursing hidden agendas. Love becomes something more than a mere bargain or transaction. At the same time, the Gnostic is less preoccupied with moral rules and regulations, which are general guidelines only. This is what it means to be free of the Law.” 208
In attempting to liberate the notion of gnosis from a purely religious definition and thereby give it a living reality in the contemporary world, we might simply see it as the effort to overcome reality as it is presented. This is a continual process that in all likelihood will rarely find final rest in one lifetime. When this impulse remains unconscious (or in it's early stages of conscious development) it's only natural to project that very impulse out onto the world thereby understanding it as the problem rather than what is projected upon it (Jung, ). Yet this tension provides the experience that can potentially be understood in a two-fold way because there is both the seer and the seen of the Universe’s teaching. Generally, the seer is largely unaware that he or she is in fact seeing, rather than the seer who is only aware of what lies in front of him. Because of this dichotomy, esoteric social structures usually take the form of schools where one can learn the basic precepts of these spiritual teachings, while exoteric institutions are formed as grand standing pulpits (i.e. the Church) from which religious leaders are able to espouse their doctrines to mass assemblies, rather than help them come to terms with their own role in personally understanding those higher truths veiled in dogma.
Our ability to discern these eternal forms, or any truths for that matter, are contingent on the nature and clarity of our own minds, and our own perceptual apparatus. Certainly, through life, and at different moments, one attains more or less clarity depending on one's present state of consciousness. Obfuscation of the consciousness is an ongoing issue, yet one can use science to objectively find the ordered patterns of the cosmic laws we mirror, transmitting truth into symbols to clearly know what reality consists of. The fate of humanity lies in the inner absorption of these ideas, directing human attention to the unknown elements in ourselves. One has the choice to accept these symbols and truths on faith, or through actively searching out reality. On the other hand, a passive mind, unconsciously shaping thought, understanding, and desired action, would unknowingly construct a false illusion, made real by its suggestibility. The science of self-investigation is then crucial for psychological understanding, acting as the key to living in perfect balance with the manifest universe, expressing nature simultaneously in theory and action while differentiating reality from illusion.
The idea that we can bridge our awareness to these inner aspects by actively maintaining our attention to the universe as a teaching, we are able to witness the variety of consciousnesses exhibited by Esoteric spirituality evolved over the course of history. The truths proposed by the earliest forms of Egyptian hermeticism have emerged in an innumerable variety of esoteric practices ranging from the Gnosticism of the early Christians, the radical dualism of the Manicheans, the emergence of medieval kabalah, the alchemy of Sir Isaac Newton, the theosophical society, and modern depth or archetypal psychologies ( Faivre and Needlemen ). This evolution has not entirely been a process of tossing out realities that haven't been found to be suitable but one of transcending them to emerge at a higher level of reality that transcends and includes the previous. It is the introduction of a new way of seeing that is not meant to merely serve pragmatically through the satisfaction of desires (Needlemen,) but to actually broaden one's mode of perceiving realities that are presented, using science as a tool with which to understand more completely its inherent truths. The more tensions an esoteric system can balance in an ever broadening reality the better. Taken in this sense, it would appear that gnosis is still very alive in the world today.