In a fitting bastardisation of astrophysics, the sun rose on the British colonial interest in the West, and finally set on it in the East, more than 800 years later. The first instance of English Crown control in Ireland in the late 1100s was the first step on the grand march towards, ‘The British Empire’—an endeavour later re-branded, ‘Globalisation’.

The chrestomathy of legions of imperial apologists, spilling their torrential logorrhea down through the pages of history, has fuelled the will to lebensraum of a long succession of monarchs, prime ministers and presidents—as writers in the ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Illuminist’ tendencies of thought have continually preached the overthrow of hereditary rule and hegemony.

The emergence of a writer, born in the city of Murcia in Al-Andalus in 1165, just as the nascent British Empire began flexing its muscles, heralded an altogether more benign influence on the world, but one which would go on to inscribe a pattern into the psyche of mankind just as deeply. The poet and theologian, Muhammad bin Ibn ‘Arabi would go on to write some of the most influential (and, arguably, the first deconstructionist) literature in history.

According to Ibn ‘Arabi’s, ‘Fusûs al-Hikam‘ (The Bezels of Wisdom), ‘the only thing that can contain god is the heart of the gnostic,’ and it’s a similar conception of the quest for inner transcendence that runs back and forth through mystical theology from Zoroastrianism to Mithraism to Kashmir Shaivism:

“The way to illumination is often described as consisting of three attainments: the Knowledge of Certainty, the Eye of Certainty, [and] the Truth of Certainty. The distinction may be understood by taking fire as the symbol of truth. To attain the Knowledge of Certainty is to know fire after having heard it described. To attain the Eye of Certainty is to know fire from seeing the light of its flames. The highest attainment, the Truth of Certainty, belongs to those who know fire from having been consumed by it.”

-Laleh Bakhtiar, Sufi, 1976

It’s this aspect of original Gnosticism that I would like to reclaim from the ancient Greco-Roman sect(s) who set about derailing the whole shebang by lashing the concept to wholesale piety from the second century of the Christian era onwards.

I object to having to choose ‘Agnostic’ in form-filling situations. It smacks of a lack of zeal, and of sitting on the fence; of hanging around to see if any better ideas come along.

That’s not what I think life should be about at all…

I’m advocating an affirmative belief in the reality of transcendental knowledge, and therefore would like the opportunity to officially describe myself as a ‘Gnostic’.

Intellectual fascists insist that the point we’re at now in the progression of knowledge and ‘reason’ is the be-all and end-all of the development of mankind—claiming exclusive hold over the legacy of the Enlightenment, and steadfastly turning away from the fact that their burgeoning ‘movement’ is being used to legitimise ‘corporate’ leakage into the realm of thought—as if the colonisation of every other literal and metaphorical space of modern life wasn’t enough.

If the now commonplace, and officially sanctioned, howls of derisory laughter at anyone’s spiritual quest to understand themselves and their place in the universe are seen to be endorsed by such heavyweights as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, then it becomes so much the easier to legitimise the denial and denigration of any possibility of even mental transcendence of the atomised structure of contemporary society. It makes all the more acceptable rejection of any alternative conception of life that dares suggest something other than a coldly-explicable binary system of corporate unity.

The supercilious mockery not only of organised religious thought, but of any spiritual dimension to existence has filtered rapidly down to the most ignorant and most powerful in the culture, and it is no longer just fashionable, it is ubiquitous.

This is not to say that this is Dawkins or Hitchens’ fault, not by a long way. They are the unwitting Nietzsches to a very large group of Hitlers, who claim this new creed as so far beyond reproach that any deviation from it can be legitimately rejected with scorn, ostracism and worse.

“The triumph of logic and rationality, the clever architecture of theoretical edifices, and the cunning methods devised for novice researchers do not make science. What they do promise is ascetic withdrawal from the world as we experience it with our senses.”

-Johannes Fabian, Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, 2005

Railing against the intellectual complacency that persisted after the end of the Roman Empire, when the number of scribes dwindled under successive waves of Barbarian migration, they “who, through the mind, filled the blessed spaces with light”* advocated salvation through knowledge rather than blind faith, and it’s a tragedy that this is the very thing that Dawkins et al go to such lengths to do, despite how their work gets spun around to say exactly the opposite.

“The collapse of Rome, the greatest Western political and social institution of earlier times, ruling a quarter of all humanity, was accomplished by the incoming peoples who first sought refuge in the empire and, in so doing so, destroyed it. The incomers arrived as civilised barbarians—that is to say they were societies cast in heroic mould, with no city life, no intellectual tradition and no belief in the progressive accumulation of knowledge.”

-Paul Kriwaczek, In Search of Zarathustra, 2005

The problem is that this time round, it’s not the incomers but the ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of the Empire, already entrenched, who have forgotten their intellectual tradition and have lost belief in the progressive accumulation of genuine knowledge.

The current fallacious assertion of so-called ‘knowledge’ over all has been hijacked in order to erect a new church of scientific fundamentalism which is just as ossified and proscriptive as the original principles it set about to to challenge. The unifying explanation for this is as old as the sands:

“…seeing the world not as a place to affirm but rather to control, the Shemites are unhappy with their nameless, wandering status…”

-Ian Almond, Sufism and Deconstruction, 2004

“Come let us [The Shemites] build ourselves a city and a tower …
Let us make ourselves a name,
that we not be scattered over the face of the earth.”

-Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalam, 1976

*Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, The Hymns of Zarathustra, 1952

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Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

13 responses to “Hip Gnosis”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Andy, I have had a Gnostic Hip for some years now. Problem is that my gleanings of the Nag Hammadi library reveal that I don’t know enough Greek to translate the codexes [codices? codpieces?] into “my kind of” English. What is the relationship that you are suggesting is between Gnosticism and British Imperialism? Should I take a linguistic plunge into reading beyond the first two paragraphs of your article, or should I await your explanations to my comment?

    • Andy Johnson says:

      Thanks for waiting, and thanks for reading the first two paragraphs, Judy.

      As in the Vietnam War poetry of Robert Duncan (see ‘Bending the Bow’ from 1968), Empire-building–whether Assyrian, American, Roman, British, or Middle-Kingdom Han–could be seen as akin to the Zoroastrian concept of ‘Ahriman’; the first evil: “the manipulative, war-invested push of the … economy” (Nathaniel Mackey, Paracitical Hinge, 2005)

      Of course, the action of empire could be an attempt to simply impose a universal tongue on the world–an endeavour to foster interraction and communication across the globe–in the benign interests of “a peaceful transparency of the human community.” (P.Kampf ed. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, 1991).

      As the builders of the first city, progenitors of mathematics and writing, and recorders of the ‘first’ story, the Shemites were arguably the first to force “an idiom on the world” (see Jacques Derrida variously). Again, this could be read as “colonial violence” or the creation of a universal genealogy, depending on where you stand.

      Analogues of the ‘totalising’, ‘unifying’, ‘flattening’ and ‘homogenising’ colonial drive recur throughout history, not least in Rome’s dissemination of Latin and the British Empire’s (and its later incarnations’) export of laissez faire capitalist ideas to the farthest extent of civilisation.

      The thrust of the imperial conquest has finally made it into the interior of the body, sectioning chambers of the heart and the mind into atomised corporate blocks, like the action of the wires of a stainless-steel egg slicer.

      Universal and absolute materialism has lead to the total acceptance of such life-lacerating received wisdom as the certainty that “love is nothing other than a disguise for our biological need to reproduce” (see Ben Jeffery, Hard Feelings – The Novels of Michel Houellebecq in the latest issue of The Point).

      It might just be a feeble coping mechanism of mine, but gnosticism (as in the original meaning of gnosticism as a firm belief in the reality of transcendental knowledge) might be a viable psychological antidote to the ontological black death, which compels us to laugh at war, laugh at religion, laugh at spirituality, to laugh at love.

      Now I’ve re-phrased the MF, what do you think?

      • Judy Prince says:

        Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful response, Andy.

        I think that your explanation is clearer than the essay itself, and I agree that “Universal and absolute materialism has led to the total acceptance of such life-lacerating received wisdom as the certainty that ‘love is nothing other than a disguise for our biological need to reproduce'”.

        Weak, watered words such as “capitalism” and “socialism” categorise recent economic behaviours and stoke ideological debate. Unfortunately, though, their repeated use dulls us from strip-mining such concepts to their fundamental metal.

        The word “imperialism”, as well, floats catch-phrasey above imputed evils, and you have employed it as a rubric for several significant historic mis-turns. However, imperialism (empire-building) is a fairly new expression for the ages-old act of “mass-stealing”. “Imperialism”, after all, can only be done if you have an empire, and the urge to “mass-steal” predates any empire.

        Taking what isn’t “ours” is what folks’ve always been doing. Do you know, for example, any babies who haven’t tried to grab something that isn’t “theirs”, usually starting with their mother’s breast? A newborn can’t at first perceive where her own self ends and her mother’s self begins.

        The whole “everything belongs to me” mindset gets Way Dodgy, of course, when some grownups feel strong enough to make it so—and clutter our mindwaves with their “reasons” for mass-stealing so that we can help them do it, or at least get the hell out of the way whilst they get on with it.

        What, very often, stops us from our basic self-ishness? Something that makes us feel that we are like someone else, and that they are like us. For you, me, and billions of other folk, it’s the conviction that we, and others, are parts of Something More, something bigger, something inclusive and exceptionally compelling, something that makes us eager to be joined to it. In short, to feel the joy of connecting with it.

        We still naturally lapse into grabbing, from time to time—and feel guilty. And, of course, some folk continue “mass-stealing” under various self-deluding or others-deluding guises. But most folk seem, thankfully, hardwiredly open to the feeling that Self=Other is a good thing.

        Thanks, again, for the response.

        BTW, where in “North England” are you?

        • Thanks for taking the time to comment back, Judy. Indeed, so much lithe rhetoric is mobilised to justify this ‘mass stealing’.

          One favourite of mine is Henry Kissinger’s staggeringly mordant conception in American Foreign Policy, 1974, that, “empirical reality has a much different significance for many of the new countries than for the West because in a certain sense they never went through the process of discovering it …”

          “Cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost completely internal to the observer.”

          According to Kissinger, the ‘West’ is necessarily, therefore, “deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data – the more accurately the better”, as some kind ‘railing against the dying of the light’; rhetorically cloaking what is actually a deep plunge into the dark.

  2. Richard Cox says:


    It is useless to fight against the oppressors when we cannot see the true world in which we are held captive. You can’t escape the Black Iron Prison when it’s all you know.


  3. Megan Power says:

    So fashionable, Andrew — the collage essay and collage novel being the literary scandals du jour.

    I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We believe whatever you believe is ok. Just keep questioning and yes, experience the world with your senses. Beautiful.

  4. Why fight the tissue of quotations? 🙂

    I can imagine ‘Unitarian Universalist’ appears as a tickable choice on census forms etc. about as often as ‘Gnostic’? Annoying, huh?

    Thanks for reading and commenting, as always.

  5. Wizard's sleeve says:

    Really enjoyed your latest piece of writing, mate.
    I do disagree with you, though.
    I sometimes feel that behaviorism was like the punk movement and did the necessary job of cleaning out that rather flimsy element of the spirit from western thought.
    However, every day I hear some ex-pat talking about their efforts in increasing their spirituality, somehow.
    Last week some bloke told me how he often focuses his thoughts on Jupiter when he feels powerless. I find that kind of thinking quite alarming and, if he hadn’t been so tall, I would have enjoyed scoffing at him. Give me the acrid pessimism of hard science any day.

  6. Andy Johnson says:

    I totally agree with you on wooly spiritualism – I’m on about a kind of informed spiritualism – as in an appreciation of the fundamental connection between cultures on an intellectual level, instead of on a dogmatic level – as in the exploration of ‘The Golden Bough’.

    What I’m objecting to is hard science being used to jusitfy materialism – as in there being no hope for anything else in life apart from what’s here and available in the shops. I hate that idea that we’re nothing more than solitary prisoners of our own skulls, and that there’s no other dimension to life than what’s here provided for us by the corporate powers that be. It’s the theology of Reagan and Thatcher, and it’s demented. Have you ever seen Thatcher’s eyes when she’s being challenged on the idea that there might be other ways of life to follow other than the mordant, black, palsied one she sketched out for us in blood and coal?…

    Check this chilling documentary out, especially if you’re considering voting conservative on Thursday…


    I’m not with you on behaviourism – as in the idea that the explanation of behaviour through belief, intention and desire is somehow unscientific, and should be the sole preserve of ‘mentalists’?… This is way, way off in my world.

  7. Wizard's sleeve says:

    I can see your point, Andy.
    Pythagoras began the science of mathematics by his search for the lost invariants of life in divine numbers and was echoed by Pascal and Leibnitz. The English Protestants – Newton, Locke and Ray were motivated by knowing more about the divine. It is the greatest of ironies that humankind’s greatest endeavor in its search for the understanding of God should end in the bleak knowledge that we are “solitary prisoners”.
    But you aren’t alone in trying to find answers from an earlier, more innocent time. More and more of the people I meet seriously accept astrology, for instance. Even Marx harked back to the social childhood of mankind. Rousseau wrote about the corruption of Man by society.
    Perhaps Gnosticism is the answer for you. Doesn’t work for me. I want to embrace my simple biological and social existence and can’t see how you can have an informed spiritualism. What exactly do you mean by that? I haven’t read The Golden Bough. Please elaborate.

  8. Andy Johnson says:

    ‘The Golden Bough’ is basically a long exegesis of the Humean idea that all things, from religion to magic to psychosis, are natural ideas abstracted within the mind.

    It charts the progression from ritual to religion to science, and gives everyone a massive break, basically.

    It doesn’t seek to demystify religion and ritual, it doesn’t seek to mystify it, it doesn’t even seek to explain it as such, just to note that the erecting of spiritual systems is a fundamental aspect of human thought that exists just as concretely in the human mind as any psychological representation of any aspect of the physical world.

    The spiritual dimension, which could be thought of as an appreciation of death as a condition of life, cannot be concreted over – it was just as true for the druids as it is for modern christian fundamentalists.

    Perhaps the “reality of transcendental knowledge” this type of gnosticism is driving at, and trying to escape through abstraction, is the knowledge everyone has of their own death.

    I’m sure there’s something about this ‘psychological flight from death’ in Camus or Kierkegaard, or even in Wittgenstein but that’s your department…

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