The texts themselves actually outline two opposing ways of achieving gnosis. ‘Optimist’ gnosticism accepts the universe as divine; God reveals himself in everything, and through his intellect, man can become like God in order to comprehend him. By a religious approach to the universe and by inscribing a representation of the universe within his own mens, man can ascend and unite with god. ‘Pessimist’ gnosticism, on the other hand, rejects the world as evil, and the material aspects of man and the universe are regarded as being a form of divine punishment” (Peter French, Dr John Dee. ‘The World of an Elizabethan Magus’, RKP, London 1972.).
According to French Neoplatonic scholar, André-Jean Festugière, there are two predominant kinds of Gnosticism:
1) Pessimist Gnosticism
The Gnosticism we hear most about is the pessimist type. This view
believes the world of matter is evil, a prison for the Soul; something
to escape from. This view is Apollonian in nature and ruled by Logos. It
requires an ascetic manner of life to put the flesh in subjection to
the spirit. It is repressive, frigid, and desireless. It sees the world
as fragmented and broken. The dualism in Gnosticism we hear so much
about derives from this view. Celibacy is born of this position, as is
self-flagellation, and various other so-called “self-redemptive
sufferings.” This type claims that one must escape matter and ascend back
to God from whence one came.
2) Optimist Gnosticism
Another kind of Gnosis says that all of Nature is divine and is to be identified with God. This view is Dionysian in nature and ruled by Eros. It believes in expression instead of repression, a holistic world view as opposed to the fragmentation of the pessimists. The entire Universe is a divine organism. Each part is interconnected with all others to the point where the whole cannot function without all the individual elements. Salvation comes from contemplating the divine with the mind via active intelligence.
Even though Gnosticism died out by the sixth century or so, many pessimist Gnostic ideas were retained by the Church, such as the concept of sin, asceticism, denial of the flesh, punishment, and so on; in other words, those things we dislike most about Christianity were inherited from pessimist Gnosticism.
British scholar, Frances Yates writes,
For the pessimist (or dualist) Gnostic, the material world heavily impregnated with the fatal influence of the stars is in itself evil; it must be escaped form by an ascetic way of life …ascends, to its true home in the immaterial divine world. For the optimist gnostic, matter is impregnated with the divine, the earth lives, moves, with a divine life, the stars are living divine animals, the sun burns with a divine power, there is no part of Nature which is not good for all are parts of God. (Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno: and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1964.).
Obviously, the ideas of pantheism and panentheism are derived from the optimist Gnosis. This is the model I have adopted to work from in my own writing.
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