Skip to content

A Key Modern School of Philosophy Looked a Lot Like an Ancient School of Heresy

Photo by Emily Crawford / Unsplash

The pagan cosmic system of late antiquity put the earth at the center of creation, surrounded by eight heavenly spheres: (sun, moon, first five planets, and their stars).

The ancient Christian heresy of gnosticism accepted this view of the cosmos but added a few things.

The eight heavenly spheres, the gnostics said, are inhabited by demons, gods, or spirits (depending which gnostic you asked . . . there were many different sects) and often bear the name “rulers,” “commanders,” and “archons.” These miniature gods inflicted their mastery over the earth (a mastery that the ancients thought gave them their “fate”).

Above all of those demons, sat the arch-demon: the Demiurge, an evil creature who created this mess and ruled it from the eighth sphere.

To the gnostic, the whole thing sucked. It was nothing but a structure of constraint: darkness, death, deception, wickedness, the fullness of evil.

And most of all, it was a structure to be escaped, like one tries to escape a prison.

The gnostic, through the knowledge he imparted, claimed to hold the keys to escape.

Gnosticism pretty much disappeared by 300 AD, replaced in its institutional forms by Manichaeism (which itself continued to exist in some fashion for nearly a thousand years).

But its cosmology made a bizarre re-appearance in the early 1900s through the thought of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who developed the modern school of philosophy known as “structuralism.”

Structuralism teaches that words do not signify an underlying reality. When you say “apple,” it doesn’t refer to a “real,” permanent idea of apple that exists somewhere above us and come down to us to inform human affairs, which was Plato’s philosophy: forms, says the Platonist, give us ideas which impart real truth and are the origins of everything in our world. The forms give us centers around which meaning can coalesce.

The structuralist disagrees and says words merely connect a concept with a sound or image. Words are arbitrary. They only have meaning because they are part of a greater system. That greater system is the social and cultural structure in which we live, and that structure merely reflects the interests and desires of the ruling class.

Words are the signs through which we communicate with one another and because words are given meaning by their place in the structure, then it’s the structure that imparts meaning: our words are products of an objective, materialistic, scientific, linguistic structure that determines the meanings of our words and thoughts. The system of language in which one exists (i.e., the structure a person is born into) determines thought. Thought doesn’t result in language but vice-versa.

The structuralist’s cosmology is shockingly parallel to the ancient gnostic’s.

The earth and eight spheres are the structure. The demons play the equivalent of words and rule the world by fate. The Demiurge is the ruling class. The gnostic’s knowledge is the structuralist’s ability to see through the structure and, perhaps, destroy it and build a new one, thereby escaping the prison.

Even though de Saussure is credited as the first structuralist, he had a predecessor: Karl Marx.

Marx is often referred to as a “proto-structuralist” because he taught that all of society is controlled by its economic structure. Meaning comes from the physical, material, and social forces of the economic structure.

Marx taught that, if the economic structure can be smashed and remade, all of society could be remade. To the Marxist, religion, philosophy, politics, art, music, literature, etc. are not pure vehicles of higher truths but are merely products of underlying structures . . . which change, can be changed, and, indeed, must be forced to change in the name of the worker and social justice.

The Marxist’s change (smashing) of the structure is the gnostic’s escape from the evil Demiurge’s cosmos.

If you think such comparisons between ancient gnosticism and modern structures are stretched, consider the effects of both systems.

To the structuralist and Marxist, there are no moral norms. Morality is nothing more than “bourgeois” values or norms of conduct meant to further the interests of the powerful. It’s no coincidence that leftists who embraced Marxism and structuralism have tended to be libertine and hedonistic. They’re merely carrying out in their personal lives the tenets of their strongest beliefs, no different than Mother Teresa carrying out the tenets of her strongest beliefs on the streets of Calcutta.

The ancient gnostics did the same.

“Libertinism,” noted gnostic expert Hans Jonas, “lay at the core of the gnostic revolution.” Such behavior, said Jonas, was the best way to express one’s freedom from the earthly prison.

By flaunting the morality expected by the evil Demiurge, you signaled that you were one of the elect, one with special knowledge.

The ancient gnostics prayed naked, banged each other’s wives, stole from their neighbors. All with equanimity.

Now, I hasten to add that not all leftists are amoral, not at all. It just tends to be an element of the far left, but even among the far left, there are men and women who have controlled themselves and followed customary rules of behavior.

But that doesn’t discredit the stark parallels between structuralism and ancient gnosticism.

In fact, it arguably strengthens it, for just as there were libertine gnostics, there were ascetics ones, gnostics who taught that the proper response to the evil Demiurge was to renounce everything earthly, perhaps even embracing death by starvation. There were also gnostics were avoided both extremes.

The obvious parallels between gnosticism and structuralism are important to understand. Unfortunately, my explanation of their (enormous) importance will have to wait for a future date. For now, just tuck it away in your mind.