Saturday, March 21, 2009

Readings: What Makes the World Go 'Round?

I don’t know how the rest of you are faring in this economic debacle, but the atmosphere in my neck of the woods has been pretty much uniformly stressful. We here in Dogpatch, USA are cursed with living in interesting times because the world is too much with us. And since I have previously been accused by various cyber-Catholics of being a world-hating Gnostic—i.e., as showing either Marcionite or Manichean tendencies—I thought that I’d post some gleanings from my recent readings on the subject of Gnosticism, rather than dwelling on bale-outs and retention bonuses and partisan political horseshit.

The book I’ve been reading is The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas. As its subtitle—The message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity—would indicate, it contrasts the concept of an immanent deity to the concept of an utterly transcendent deity. This distinction results, in the case of the latter, in a dualistic view of the cosmos and man’s place in it: the world is bad; matter is bad; the only thing of importance is escaping from this fallen world of slavery to fate and existential alienation and returning to our true home, with God.

My next few posts will consist largely of excerpts from Jonas’ book, which highlight the primary points of antagonism between classical Greek philosophy/orthodox Christianity on the one hand, and the more “Eastern” (Syrian- and Persian-rooted) concepts which gave rise to Gnosticism, on the other.

To kick things off, here is Jonas on the fundamental Greek attitude toward life in the cosmos:

The Pythagoreans had found in the astral order the proportions of the concordant musical scale, and accordingly had called this system of the spheres in operation a harmonia, that is, the fitting together of many into a unified whole. Thereby they created the most enchanting symbol of Greek cosmic piety: “harmony,” issuing in the inaudible “music of the spheres,” is the idealizing expression for the same fact of irrefragable order that astrology stresses less optimistically in its own context. Stoic philosophy strove to integrate the idea of destiny as propounded by contemporary astrology with the Greek concept of harmony: heimarmene to the Stoics is the practical aspect of the harmony, i.e., its action as it affects terrestrial conditions and the short-lived beings here. And since the stellar movements are actuated by the cosmic logos and this logos functions in the world-process as providence (pronoia), it follows that in this wholly monistic system heimarmene itself is pronoia, that is, fate and divine providence are the same. The understanding of and willing consent to this fate thus interpreted as the reason of the whole distinguishes the wise man, who bears adversity in his individual destiny as the price paid by the part for the harmony of the whole.

If heimarmene is truly pronoia, is that a good thing? If so, the above all sounds not too shabby, don’t you think?