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Gnosis (from one of the Greek words for knowledge, γνῶσις) is the spiritual knowledge of a saint or mystically enlightened human being. In the cultures of the term (Byzantine and Hellenic) gnosis was a special knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine and uncreated in all and above all, rather than knowledge strictly into the finite, natural or material world which is called Epistemological knowledge. Gnosis is a transcendental as well as mature understanding. It indicates direct spiritual experiential knowledge and intuitive knowledge, mystic rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Gnosis itself is obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany of intuition and external epiphany such as the Theophany.


Gnosis is a Greek word, originally used in specifically Hellenistic pagan philosophical contexts. Plato, for example, uses the terms γνωστικοί – gnostikoi and γνωστικὴ ἐπιστήμη – gnostike episteme in the text called Politikos. The word means the "knowledge to influence and control῾ Gnostike episteme was also used to indicate one's aptitude. The terms do not appear to indicate any mystic, esoteric or hidden meaning in the works of Plato, but instead expressed a sort of higher intelligence and ability analogous to talent. The term is used throughout Greek philosophy as a technical term for experience knowledge (see gnosiology) in contrast to theoretical knowledge or epistemology. The term is also related to the study of knowledge retention or memory (see also cognition). In relation to ontic or ontological, which is how something actually is rather than how something is captured (abstraction) and stored (memory) in the mind. The Sanskrit term, gnana (gnyana, gyana or jnana), meaning intelligence or wisdom, appears to be related to 'gnosis'.

The Gnostic sects

Among the sectarian gnostics, gnosis was first and foremost a matter of self-knowledge which was considered the path leading to the goal of enlightenment. Through such self-knowledge and personal purification (virtuous living) the adept is led to direct knowledge of God via themselves as inner reflection or will. Later, Valentinius (Valentinus), taught that gnosis was the privileged Gnosis kardias "knowledge of the heart" or "insight" about the spiritual nature of the cosmos, that brought about salvation to the pneumatics— the name given to those believed to have reached the final goal of sanctity. Gnosis was distinct from the secret teachings revealed to initiates once they had reached a certain level of progression akin to arcanum . Rather, these teachings were paths to obtain gnosis.(See e.g. "fukasetsu", or ineffability, a quality of realization common to many, if not most, esoteric traditions; see also Jung on the difference between sign and symbol.) Gnosis from this perspective being analogous, to the same meaning as the words occult and arcana. Which is the same knowledge of prognostication.

The Gnostics in the Early Christian Era

In the formation of Christianity, various sectarian groups, labeled "gnostics" by their opponents, emphasised spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over faith (pistis) in the teachings and traditions of the established community of Christians. These sectarians considered the most essential part of the process of salvation to be this personal knowledge, in contrast to faith as an outlook in their world view along with faith in the ecclesiastical authority. These break away groups were branded minuth by Hebrews (see the Notzrim) and heretics by the Fathers of the early church due to teaching this type of authority rejection referred to as antinomianism. The knowledge of these sectarian groups is contested by orthodox Christian theology as speculative knowledge derived from religio-philosophical systems rather than knowledge derived from revelation coming from faith.Gnosis itself is and was obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany for example. For the various sectarian gnostics, gnosis was obtained as speculative gnosis, instigated by the contemplation of their religio-philosophical (Cosmological, salvational and rational) systems. These systems were pagan (folk) in origin and syncretic in nature. The gnostic sectarians vilified the concepts of a subjective creator God (Plato's demiurge) and objective creator God (one that creates ex-nihilo) as in the Judeo-Christian God (creator) and sought to reconcile the individual to their own personal deification (henosis), making each individual God. As such the gnostic sects made a duality out of the difference between the activities of the spirit (nous), called noesis (insight), and those of faith.

During the early formation of Christianity, church authorities (Fathers of the Church) exerted considerable amounts of energy attempting to weed out what were considered to be false doctrines (e.g. Irenaeus' On the Detection and Overthrow of False Gnosis). The gnostics (as one sectarian group) held views which were incompatible with the emerging Ante-Nicene community. Among Christian heresiologist, the concept of false gnosis was used to denote different Pagan, Jewish or Christian belief systems (e.g. the Eleusinian Mysteriesmarker or Glycon) and their various teachings of what was deemedreligio-philosophical systems of knowledge, as opposed to authentic gnosis (see below, Gnosis among the Greek Fathers). The sectarians used gnosis or secret knowledge to reject the traditions of the established community or church. The authorities throughout the community criticized this antinomianism as inconsistent with the communities teachings. Hence sectarians and followers of gnosticism were first rejected by the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean (see the Notzrim 139–67 BCE), then by the Christian communities and finally by the late Hellenistic philosophical communities (see Neoplatonism and Gnosticism).

In the writings of the Greek Fathers

The fathers of early Christianity used the word gnosis to mean spiritual knowledge, in specific knowledge of the divine. This usage to a degree being analogous with the modern usage of the word mysticism. This positive usage was to contrast it with the use of the word by gnostic sectarians. This use carried over from Hellenic philosophy into Greek Orthodoxy as a critical characteristic of ascetic practices via St Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hegesippus, and Origen. Gnosis here meant intuitive knowledge, spiritual knowledge, heart knowledge (kardiognosis), memory of an experience of God and or the divine. As such it was emphasized that such knowledge is not secret knowledge but rather a maturing, transcendent form of knowledge derived from contemplation (theoria resulting from practice of hesychasm), since gnosis can not truly be derived from gnosis but rather gnosis can only be derived from theoria. Gnosis thus plays an important role in relation to theosis (deification/personal relationship with God) and theoria (revelation of the divine, vision of God). Gnosis, as the proper use of the noetic faculty plays an important role in Eastern Orthodox theology. Its importance in the economy of salvation is discussed periodically in the Philokalia where as direct, personal knowledge of God (noesis; see also Noema) it is distinguished from ordinary epistemological knowledge (speculative philosophy).

Hellenic philosophy

The Neoplatonic philosophers, including Plotinus, rejected followers of gnosticism as being un-Hellenistic and anti-Plato due to their vilification of Plato's creator of the universe (the demiurge), arriving at dystheism as the solution to the problem of evil, taking all their truths over from Plato. Plotinus did express that gnosis, via contemplation, was the highest goal of the philosopher toward henosis.

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901–1985), partially building on the concept of gnosis as used by Plato and the followers of Gnosticism, along with how it was defined by Hans Jonas, defined the gnosis of the followers of Gnosticism as religious philosophical teachings that are the foundations of cults. Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism.

Voegelin identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection with society, and a belief that this disconnection is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. This alienation has two effects:
  • The belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis).
  • The desire to create and implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin described it, to Immanentize the Eschaton, to create a sort of heaven on earth within history by triggering the apocalypse.

Voegelin’s conception of gnosis and his analysis of Gnosticism in general has been criticized by Eugene Webb, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature. In an article entitled "Voegelin’s Gnosticism Reconsidered", Webb explains that Voegelin’s concept of Gnosticism was conceived "not primarily to describe ancient phenomena but to help us understand some modern ones for which the evidence is a great deal clearer." Webb continues, "the category (of Gnosticism) is of limited usefulness for the purpose to which he put it…and the fact that the idea of Gnosticism as such has become so problematic and complex in recent years must at the very least undercut Voegelin’s effort to trace a historical line of descent from ancient sources to the modern phenomena he tried to use them to illuminate."

See also


  1. "Spiritual knowledge is the state of spiritual theoria, when one sees invisibly and hears inaudibly and comprehends incomprehensibly the glory of God. Precisely then comprehension ceases and, what is more, he understands that he does not understand. Within the vision of the uncreated Light man also sees angels and Saints and, in general, he experiences communion with the angels and the Saints. He is then certain that resurrection exists. This is the spiritual knowledge which all the holy Prophets, the Apostles, Martyrs, ascetics and all the Saints of the Church had. The teachings of the Saints are an offspring of this spiritual knowledge. And, naturally, as we said earlier, spiritual knowledge is a fruit of the vision of God. "THE ILLNESS AND CURE OF THE SOUL" Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos [1]
  2. St. Symeon the New Theologian in Practical & Theological Discourses, 1.1 The Philokalia Volume Four: When men search for God with their bodily eyes they find Him nowhere, for He is invisible. But for those who ponder in the Spirit He is present everywhere. He is in all, yet beyond all
  3. University of Athens - Department of Theology
  4. Αποτελέσματα αναζητήσεως : knowledge
  5. The Philokalia Volume Four Palmer, G.E.H; Sherrard; Ware, Kallistos . ISBN 0-571-19382-X glossary pg 434 Spiritual Knowledge (γνῶσις) :the knowledge of the intellect (q.v.). As such, it is knowledge inspired by God, as insight (noesis) or (revelational, intuitive knowledge (see gnosiology) and so linked with contemplation and immediate spiritual perception.
  6. Cooper and Hutchinson. "Introduction to Politikos". Cooper, John M. & Hutchinson, D. S. (Eds.) (1997). Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN 0-87220-349-2.
  7. III The Mystery-Religions were systems of gnosis akin, and forming a stage to, those mevements to which the name of Gnosticism became attached pg 52 The Mystery religions: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity By Samuel Angus Published by Courier Dover Publications, 1975 ISBN 0486231240, 9780486231242 [2]
  8. " Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky Appendix II The Heresies which disturbed the church in the first millennium Pg 376 Gnosticism The foundation of the Gnostic system is the idea of the creation of a higher religio-philosophical knowledge (gnosis) by uniting Greek philosophy and the philosophy of the learned Alexandrian Jew Philo with the Eastern religions, especially the religion of Zoroaster. Section reprinted here due to not being included in the online version [3]
  9. Mystery Religions and Christianity By Samuel Angus Published by Kessinger Publishing, 2003 ISBN 0766131017, 9780766131019 [4]
  10. III The Mystery-Religions were systems of gnosis akin, and forming a stage to, those movements to which the name of Gnosticism became attached pg 52 The Mystery religions: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity By Samuel Angus Published by Courier Dover Publications, 1975 ISBN 0486231240, 9780486231242 [5]
  11. i.e. "Each of the Nine Ecumenical Councils condemned specific heresies of their time exactly because they deviated from this cure by attempting to transform the medical practice of the Church into systems of philosophical and mystical speculations and practices."[6]
  12. Glossary of terms from the Philokalia pg 434 the knowledge of the intellect as distinct from that of the reason(q.v.). Knowledge inspired by God, and so linked with contemplation (q.v.) and immediate spiritual perception.
  13. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 2002. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9) pg 218
  14. They claimed to be a privileged caste of beings, in whom alone God was interested, and who were saved not by their own efforts but by some dramatic and arbitrary divine proceeding; and this, Plotinus claimed, led to immorality. Worst of all, they despised and hated the material universe and denied its goodness and the goodness of its maker. For a Platonist, that is utter blasphemy – and all the worse because it obviously derives to some extent from the sharply other-worldly side of Plato's own teaching (e.g. in the Phaedo). At this point in his attack Plotinus comes very close in some ways to the orthodox Christian opponents of Gnosticism, who also insist that this world is the work of God in his goodness. But, here as on the question of salvation, the doctrine which Plotinus is defending is as sharply opposed on other ways to orthodox Christianity as to Gnosticism: for he maintains not only the goodness of the material universe but also its eternity and its divinity. A.H. Armstrong introduction to II 9. Against the Gnostics Pages 220–222
  15. The teaching of the Gnostics seems to him untraditional, irrational and immoral. They despise and revile the ancient Platonic teachings and claim to have a new and superior wisdom of their own: but in fact anything that is true in their teaching COMES FROM PLATO, and all they have done themselves is to add senseless complications and pervert the true traditional doctrine into a melodramatic, superstitious fantasy designed to feed their own delusions of grandeur. They reject the only true way of salvation through wisdom and virtue, the slow patient study of truth and pursuit of perfection by men who respect the wisdom of the ancients and know their place in the universe. A.H. Armstrong introduction to II 9. Against the Gnostics Pages 220–222
  16. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin By Eric Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz, Gilbert Weiss, William Petropulos Published by Louisiana State University Press, 1989 ISBN 0807118265, 9780807118269 [7]
  17. Glossary of Voegelin terms online [8] Gnosis "Knowledge". Originally a general term in Greek for knowledge of various sorts. Later, especially with the Gnostic movement of the early Christian era, a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite. According to Voegelin, the claim to gnosis may take intellectual, emotional, and volitional forms." [Webb 1981:282]
  18. Glossary of Voegelin terms online [9] Gnosticism "A type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. As a religious or quasi-religious movement, gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)." [Webb 1981:282]
  19. Webb, E; Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered; Political Science Reviewer; 34; 2005
  20. Webb, E; "Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered"; Political Science Reviewer; 34; 2005

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