Gnosticism matters because it has heated up lately. Heck, that's an understatement. It was simmering in the 18th-19th centuries. It boiled in the 20th centuries. In the 21st century, it has boiled over. It's everywhere.
You confused about how people could be embracing Socialism? Gnosticism might be your answer. You don't understand how anyone could think Bruce Jenner is a chick? Gnosticism gives you a tool to figure it out. Hate Antifa? Join the early Christians like St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who hated the Gnostics.
I was, literally, trembling a little bit while typing up these notes. I was excited to bring this to you, like “I am now giving you the Rosetta Stone to modern political discourse. If you can use this Rosetta Stone, you can translate ALL this bullshit.” And then I envisioned you all showing me with praise, thanking me profusely, women throwing their bras at me. Confused men, not fully comprehending the thrust of the podcast, their jock straps at me. You know, that sort of thing.
And then realizing many might react like I do when my cat brings me a dead mouse, thinking I want him to bring it into the house.
Because here's the thing. Gnosticism isn't going to help you figure out who to vote for. It's not going to tell you who killed Epstein. It's not going to help you figure out who has been paying for the border wall. In the day to day, it's not going to help you at all.
For the political scientist, I'm afraid I got nuthin'.
But for someone interested in a bigger view, something along the lines of political philosophy, Gnosticism has a lot for you. And if you believe in God and religion and things like the importance of Zen, it all ties together.
So I want to get started, but one quick word of warning: I honestly believe Gnosticism is a key. It is probably the key to understanding these postmodern times. Gnosticism is a tool for understanding people on the Left. Let me be blunt. Just as Christianity is a tool for understanding people on the Right in America, Gnosticism is a tool for understanding people on the Left.
But just as Christianity doesn't let you understand everyone on the Right in America, Gnosticism doesn't let you understand everyone on the Left. I really think that, as you start understanding Gnosticism, you're going to get excited and start labeling everyone to the left of, say, Mitt Romney as a Gnostic. Don't do that. Don't be the guy with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.
Gnosticism is a great tool, but it's not the only tool.
Second Segment: Modern Gnosticism
Instead of accepting the Metaxy and the resulting unpleasantness, many desire to eliminate it. Picture a dude being tortured. He's on the beach, shirt ripped off, and he's stretched out: left arm tied to a metal pole dug into the sand; right arm tied to another vertical pole six feet away. It sucks. The best way to get rid of the tension? Rip out one of the poles.
And in the Metaxy, you rip out one of the poles by denying it. The ancient Gnostic denied the earth, saying it was all a prison of an evil god, totally bereft of legitimate existence.
The modern Gnostic denies the transcendent.
This is the entire movement of modernity and postmodernity. The Enlightenment is a Gnostic movement of sorts, albeit in a pale form compared to that arch-Gnostic system, Marxism/Communism. When Karl Marx said religion is pie in the sky, he was articulating a Gnostic premise: THERE IS NO SKY. THERE IS NO TRANSCENDENCE. THERE IS NO GOD. All such things are totally bereft of legitimate existence. Therefore, all focus must be on the immanent, on the earth. We build the earthly paradise here. All earth . . . no tension.
Remember my discussion in Episode 60 about Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions? In that splendid book, Sowell pointed out that there are two visions in the modern world that constantly clash: the constrained and the unconstrained. The constrained looks at the world as one of limitation. The unconstrained views the world as one that is infinitely improvable.
There is a ton of overlap in Sowell's book and Gnosticism, and it helps you get a better feel for Gnosticism. The unconstrained vision is, roughly speaking, Gnostic. Now, you could say, “Scheske, what about David Hume? That devout atheist eliminated his tension in the metaxy, just like the most rabid Gnostic, but nobody would put him in the unconstrained camp.”
And you'd be right. There are people like Hume who have eliminated the transcendent pole of existence for themselves but they're not Gnostics. To be a Gnostic, you need to eliminate a pole of existence AND take that message to the street, as a form of salvation, like the most rabid tent revival preacher . . . or at least be in the congregation of such a person. Keep in mind, Gnosticism is, first and foremost, a religion, and that entails salvation. No message of salvation, no Gnosticism. Hume had no message of salvation. He was just a skeptic, and a jolly one at that, because he had no religious message. God bless those kinds of skeptics.
You could also say, “And what about those liberation theologian priests in the Catholic Church who preach Marxism? They believe in God but are also pushing for Communism!” That, too, would be a good point. As an aside, I'd point out that those priests are hopelessly conflated in their views, embracing two entirely incompatible systems, but I wouldn't say they're Gnostics. More confused than those three dudes waking up in the morning in The Hangover, yes. Unconstrained, yes. But not Gnostics because they haven't eliminated one of the poles (though, to be honest, some of them have; in many of them, their Catholicism is virtually non-existent).
Third Segment: Lightning Segments
Fourth Segment: 596 BC to 400 BC
Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586. The Jews were deported to Babylon, but not all of them. Babylon then fell to the Persians and Cyrus the Great.
The Persians were Zoroastrians. A kindly religion. Weird, but kindly. They believed in a sort of religious tolerance, and they saw now reason the Jews couldn't return to their land and practice their religion. So many of the Jews went back. They got resistance from the Jews who had stayed behind and other people who had moved in and set up homes. The first wave of Jews who showed up didn't even get settled. It took a second wave, and muscle from Cyrus who wanted them to be able to return, to get them partially settled. If this feels oddly similar to what happened after WWII, you'd be right.
It took four waves for the re-settlement to take hold, the last and most successful one led by the prophet Nehemiah, who was also a Persian official.
The Babylonian Captivity and subsequent resettlement helped form the Judaism as a religion as we know it today. Once they were deprived of their state, the Jewish religion was strictly, well, religion. It had no government or official component to it. Jewish religious practices became strictly voluntary, the first time something like that had happened in world history, and Judaism as a distinct religion flourished.
But is it just a libertarian thing? No, there's obviously a lot at work, including this historical oddity: Around the year 500 BC, there seemed to be a religious flowering throughout the world. You had the flowering of Judaism as a religion as distinct from a state. Pythagoras (a highly mystical philosopher, who some credit with establishing the first contemplative monastery). Heraclitus (similarly mystical in his musings). Lao-Tze, the founder of Taoism and one of my favorites. Even Buddha was around 500 BC, though probably a smidgeon later. The earliest Hindu Upanishads date from about this time, too. A guy named “Karl Jaspers” expanded the time period to include a lot of other intellectual and religious movements and called it “The Axial Age.” Google it, if you want.
Let's shift over to Rome. There's not much to report.
509, though, is a big year. Rome overthrew the Tarquins, a family that had held the kingship for years, swore they'd never have a king again, and established the Republic, which would stand for nearly 500 years. The Republic, of course, would be so successful that when control passed from the Senate to an Emperor, the entity, Rome, would continue for yet another 1,500 years. So, even though Rome was growing during this time period (again, 586 to 399), it was still a speck on the map.
And Greece. Shift back to Cyrus the Great. Cyrus and the Persians didn't just beat up the Babylonians and other folks in the Middle East. They threatened Europe. A first. It started when a group of Greek city states in western Anatolia rebelled against Persian rule.
When the Anatalion Greek city-states rebelled, Athens and other Greeks on the mainland assisted them. And for this, they had to be punished. Persia invaded Greece . . . and lost at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. It was a huge deal. The Greeks were vastly outnumbered but their phalanx innovation carried the day.
This ushered in the era of Athens. The Athenian hegemony, in which they were the acknowledged leader of all the Greek city states. Athens' arrogance in this position would eventually become insufferable, then Sparta and others allied against Athens. The result was the two Peloponnesian Wars, from which Sparta emerged victorious in 404. With the coarse Spartan victory, the golden era of Greece was dead. But that golden age, the 400s BC, saw the greatest of Greek art, including literary and architecture.