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Avanzino Nucci: Peter's confrontation with Simon Magus (1620)
Simon Magus
(† 65 in Rome), already mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, is considered the first historically ascertainable Gnostic and the first heretic of the Church.

Gnosis (from Greekγνῶσις gnōsis "knowledge"), often also called Gnosticism, is a very heterogeneous syncretic, largely esoteric, unworldly spiritual current that had its heyday in the late antique world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD and sought to combine ancient mystery knowledge with the philosophical thinking of antiquity and in many cases also with Christian thought. Rudolf Steiner names gnosis as one of the seven worldview moods and assigns it to the sphere of Saturn.

The spiritual background of gnosis

Neoplatonism, which was widespread at the time, had a great influence on the formulation of Gnostic teachings, as did parts of Aristotelian doctrine. There were Christian, Jewish, pagan and at the same time mostly strongly Hellenistic Gnostics who called themselves knowers and often referred to their own direct spiritual experiences. Like many ancient teachers, they did not publicly disseminate the occult core of their teachings, or only rarely. In many cases, Gnostic mysticism was also understood as mathesis, because it strove for spiritual knowledge with the same clarity of thought as mathematics.

Hans Jonas very aptly characterised the basic ideas of gnosis thus:

„Out of the mist of the beginnings of our age emerges a spectacle of mythical figures whose vast, superhuman outlines could populate the walls and ceiling of a second Sistine Chapel. Their countenances and gestures, the roles they occupy, the drama they enact would bring to light images different from the biblical ones with which the viewer's imagination has grown up, and yet they would be strangely familiar and disturbingly moving. The stage would be the same, the subject equally transcendent - the creation of the world, man's destiny, fall and redemption, the first things and the last. But how much more numerous would be the cast, how much more bizarre the symbolism and how much more extravagant the sentiments! Almost the entire plot would take place on a higher plane, in the divine realm or in that of angels or demons - a drama of pre-cosmic persons in the world of the supernatural, to which the drama of man in the natural world is but a distant echo. And yet that transcendent drama before all time, which finds its representation in the actions and passions of human-like figures, would be full of human appeal: Seduced divinity, restlessness stirring the blessed aeons, God's erring wisdom, Sophia becoming the victim of her own folly, straying into the emptiness and darkness of her own making, endlessly seeking, lamenting, suffering, repenting, birthing her passion into matter, her longing into the soul; a blind, haughty creator who thinks himself supreme and waves his sceptre over creation which, like himself, is a product of lack and ignorance; the soul trapped and lost in the labyrinth of the world, trying to escape but shrinking from the guards of the cosmic prison, the terrible archons; a saviour from the light beyond who ventures into the lower world, illuminates the darkness, opens a way and heals the divine injury: A story of light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, serenity and passion, imagination and mercy - not on a human scale, but on that of eternal beings who are not immune to suffering and error.“

Hans Jonas: Gnosis. The Message of the Alien God, p. 11f

Gnosis and the Revelation of the Divine through the Sentient Soul

Gnosis is based on the clairvoyant exploration of the supersensible that underlies the outer world. The gnosis researcher Hans Leisegang remarks:

„Gnosis is knowledge of the supersensible, which is assumed to be the driving force of all events in and behind the world perceptible through the senses of the body "invisibly visible in eternal mystery".... The supersensible itself, however, is conceived as a system of ideas that are at the same time cosmic forces and have been imagined as personal divine beings, as demons, spirits, angels, or as figures of pagan and Christian myths that carry the fate of the world and of man in their hands.“

Hans Leisegang: The Gnosis, p. 1

Eugen Heinrich Schmitt characterises the essence of gnosis as follows:

„Gnosis is above all the contemplation of the facts of one's own inner being and through these and in these the insight into the connection of the graduated ladder of all phenomena.“

E. H. Schmitt: The Gnosis, vol. 1, p. 9

Gnosis, as Rudolf Steiner has pointed out, drew from the powers of the sentient soul, which had its heyday in the Egyptian-Chaldean period. This ancient, deeply esoteric mystery gnosis, which was cultivated from about the 4th to the 1st millennium B.C., remained resolved as a well-kept secret in the Mysteries and its essential content has not been handed down externally. It was based on intimate experiences of the soul that could be experienced but not expressed in external words - at least not in words that would still be understandable today. At the turn of time, the intellectual soul had already awakened, with which the deeper content of this ancient mystery gnosis could only be grasped in shadowy form. The soul experiences that formed its deeper content had already faded. A picture of this is given by the exoterically transmitted gnosis, which in the end could not sustainably assert itself because it no longer reached its own spiritual roots and at the same time no longer corresponded to the new demands of the intellect.

„A far-reaching change takes place with the unfolding of the sentient soul. The manifestation of the Divine through the senses grows dim and fades away. In place of it man begins to perceive the mere sense-impressions — colours, states of warmth, etc. — empty, as it were, of the Divine. And within him the Divine now manifests itself in a spiritual form, in pictorial ideas. He now perceives the world from two sides: through sense-impressions from without, and through Spirit impressions of an ideal kind from within.

Man at this stage must come to perceive the Spirit impressions in as definite a shape and clear a form as he hitherto perceived the divinely permeated sense-impressions. And indeed, while the age of the sentient soul holds sway he is still able to do this. For from his inner being the idea pictures rise before him in a fully concrete shape. He is filled from within with a sense-free Spirit-content — itself an image of the contents of the World. The Gods, who hitherto revealed themselves to him in a garment of sense, reveal themselves now in the garment of the Spirit.

This was the age when the Gnosis really originated and had its life.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 208)

A last echo of these pictorial ideas still lived on in Platonism and Neoplatonism. The Gnostics were able to take up these vividly pictorial ideas at the turn of the century. They were also able to take up what Aristotle had said about the soul and about the heavenly edifice in order to expand their teachings, but much less the dry logical understanding.

„Gnosis actually consists in the fact that people who become Gnostics are conscious: One can come to that in which the soul originates, to the spiritual only through knowledge, through clear, bright, light-filled knowledge. - But it was already the time when intellectualism was preparing itself in the dark, the time when intellectualism was regarded as the enemy of the human soul's relationship to the spiritual. To a certain extent, one saw prophetically into the future how intellectualism was approaching, one saw to a certain extent already this coming of intellectualism, which wanted to completely de-spiritualise, completely de-divinise the world, as I characterised it yesterday. One saw this, and one felt that intellectualism was a danger. One wanted to hold on with all one's fibres to a spiritual that was not grasped by intellectualism.“ (Lit.:GA 343a, p. 269)

Nevertheless, many opponents misunderstood gnosis as an outgrowth of more or less fantastic theological speculations, because they could not grasp its primarily symbolic-imaginative character.


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.