Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Readings: Man, oh Man

As the next excerpt that I had lined up from the Jonas book on the Gnostics is both rather long and, I think, self-explanatory, I will just go ahead and present it without superfluous prefatory comment:

Plotinus…bears witness to the resistance which Greek piety offered to this detraction of the stellar world…: [e.g.] “If men are superior to other living creatures, how much more superior are they (the spheres), which are in the All not for tyrannical rule but to confer on it order and harmony... .”

Obviously Plotinus’ argument is conclusive only on the common Greek assumption (tacitly presupposed by him) of the general homogeneity of all cosmic existence, which permits comparison between all parts by a uniform standard of evaluation. The standard is that of “cosmos,” i.e., order itself, and by this standard man indeed must rank far below the stars, which achieve undeviatingly and for the whole what man may at best achieve passingly and on his small scale, namely, ordered activity. The argument as to worth is hardly convincing to us. How much farther Plotinus as the representative of the classical mind is here from our own position than the Gnostics are with all their mythological fancy, the following quotation will make evident.

Even the basest men they [the Gnostics] deem worthy to be called brothers, while with frenzied mouth they declare the sun, the stars in the heavens, and even the world-soul, unworthy to be called by them brothers. Those who are base have indeed no right to claim that kinship, but those who have become good [have acquired the right].

Here the two camps confront each other with inimitable clearness. Plotinus maintains the unity of all being in the universe, with no essential separation of the human and the non-human realm. …Gnosticism, on the contrary, removes man, in virtue of his essential belonging to another realm, from all sameness with the world, which is now nothing but bare “world,” and confronts him with its totality as the absolutely different.

What I think has been said here is that there was something distinctly modern about the Gnostics' rejection of the Greek cosmic model. To a certain extent, we are all Gnostics now.