Monday, March 17, 2008

Nietzche and Ancient Gnosticism's Pejorative Revaluations

“…The legend of Prometheus is indigenous to the entire community of Aryan races and attests to their prevailing talent for profound and tragic vision. In fact, it is not improbable that this myth has the same characteristic importance for the Aryan mind as the myth of the Fall has for the Semitic, and that the two myths are related as brother and sister. The presupposition of the Prometheus myth is primitive man's belief in the supreme value of fire as the true palladium of every rising civilization. But for man to dispose of fire freely, and not receive it as a gift from heaven in the kindling thunderbolt and the warming sunlight, seemed a crime to thoughtful primitive man, a despoiling of divine nature. Thus this original philosophical problem poses at once an insoluble conflict between men and the gods, which lies like a huge boulder at the gateway to every culture…” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Part 9, pg. 32.

[A great weak point of Nietzsche’s philosophical argument seems to me to recur in his accounts of origins. We are to believe that man’s discovery of his abilities in relation to the order around him poses an inevitable opposition between the gods and man for the thinking man. But this doesn't follow at all. One of the qualities of A Beautiful World is the illumination to some extent of how the universe seems to have been made for man’s development and discovery. Man's ability in the universe can easily, more easily, it seems to me, be accounted for in terms of a harmonious order, an order that evokes gratitude. Another place where Nietzsche's account of religions seems to me a weak point is in The Genealogy of Morals when he seeks to explain the formation of society in terms of transaction... Commerce establishing society. The more primal, more fundamental reality is that of a mother and child. It is that out of which society springs- love, not will to power. Love will ultimately survive secular impotency.

There is in Nietzsche what seems to me a Gnostic turn, a course of assumptions, a stance, but it is far from being the inevitable outcome of astute reflection.

Hans Jonas in his landmark work of scholarship on ancient gnosticism, The Gnostic Religion, describes an aspect of gnosticism which parallels the nihilism Nietzche enjoins, in this, his first book:
“The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and the world, and correspondingly that of man and world. The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule. The genesis of these lower powers, the Archons (rulers), and in general that of all the orders of being outside God, including the world itself, is a main theme of Gnostic speculation….The spheres are the seats of the Archons, especially the “Seven,” that is, of the planetary gods borrowed from the Babylonian pantheon. It is significant that these are now often called by Old Testament names for God (Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai), which from being synonyms for the one and supreme God are by this transposition turned into proper names of inferior demonic beings- an example of the pejorative revaluation to which Gnosticism subjected ancient traditions in general and Jewish tradition in particular. The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit. In its physical aspect this rule is the law of nature; in its psychical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of the Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man. ..”
[A little familiarity with Nietzsche would seem to be enough to see a parallel between this notion of Mosaic Law, etc. as enslaving, as slave religion. Certainly there is a pejorative revaluation. There seems to be a widespread tendency not to get this aggressive note. It seems gnosticism is now popularly imagined as a victim, and nihilism too is thought of largely as a passive permissiveness or indifference to transgression. ]

“The law of ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not’ promulgated by the Creator is just one more form of ‘cosmic’ tyranny. The sanctions attaching to its transgression can affect only the body and the psyche. As the pneumatic is free from the heimarmene [fate], so he is free from the yoke of the moral law. To him all things are permitted, since the pneuma is ‘saved in its nature’ and can be neither sullied by actions nor frightened by the threat of archonic retribution. The pneumatic freedom, however, is a matter of more than mere indifferent permission: through intentional violation of the demiurgical norms the pneumatic thwarts the design of the Archons and paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. This antinomian libertinism exhibits more forcefully than the ascetic version the nihilistic element contained in Gnostic acomism.” –Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.46.

This brings me to the second part of Nietzsche’s quote:

“Man's highest good must be bought with a crime and paid for by the flood of grief and suffering which the offended divinities visit upon the human race in its noble ambition. An austere notion, this, which by the dignity it confers on crime presents a strange contrast to the Semitic myth of the Fall--a myth that exhibits curiosity, deception, suggestibility, concupiscence, in short a whole series of principally feminine frailties, as the root of all evil. What distinguishes the Aryan conception is an exalted notion of active sin as the properly Promethean virtue; this notion provides us with the ethical substratum of pessimistic tragedy, which comes to be seen as a justification of human ills, that is to say of human guilt as well as the suffering purchased by that guilt. The tragedy at the heart of things, which the thoughtful Aryan is not disposed to quibble away, the contrariety at the center of the universe, is seen by him as an interpenetration of several worlds, as for instance a divine and a human, each individually in the right but each, as it encroaches upon the other, having to suffer for its individuality. The individual, in the course of his heroic striving towards universality, de-individuation, comes up against that primordial contradiction and learns both to sin and to suffer. The Aryan nations assign to crime the male, the Semites to sin the female gender; and it is quite consistent with these notions that the original act of hubris should be attributed to a man, original sin to a woman.”

Like the ancient Gnostic, Nietzsche not only permits but actively enjoins the commission of a crime as a kind of perverse self-development. Nietzsche obviously favors the “Aryan” view against the Semitic and Christian belief in the Fall. He enjoins the conferral of a dignity on crime. He deems the feminine the weaker and associates it with the Semitic; he deems the Aryan, Promethean view as the masculine and superior.

Nietzsche like Freud attacks the Fall. Freud, in suffering a terrible cancer of the mouth, nevertheless, chain-smoking, commits suicide on the Jewish Day of Atonement, after having written, as his final book, an attack on Judaism, Moses and Monotheism.
Men like Jonas have long been aware of these things but it is something of a revelation for me to see them brought out. (Note: Jonas is a lucid writer. He clearly exposits the foreign terms before he utilizes them and a quote has out of context can be overwhelming but I would hope not to daunting.)

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