Two new religious-philosophical movements emerged in late antiquity: Gnosticism and Hermeticism. And while they have many similarities in their beliefs, they are also quite different.
What is Gnosticism?
Historically, Gnosticism did not exist as it is used in modern times. Some modern Christian groups use the term “Gnostics” to refer to secret or esoteric groups of Gnostics who have been persecuted and exterminated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Research shows that in late antiquity there were no groups or people who called themselves gnostics. Gnosticism was not an isolated tradition as the study and practice of it took place in existing religious traditions. Before the rise of the church, there were many versions of early Christian beliefs. The gnostics chose beliefs that were later seen as pagan or heretical, which led to their persecution and downfall.
Although the gnostics were a Christian sect, there were major differences between them and “regular” Christianity. The gnostics believed that the resurrection of Jesus was as a spirit and not bodily. Also, they focused on non-canonical gospels to study and contemplate. They believed that the physical world was a prison for the human mind.
In Gnosticism, we encounter the idea that true knowledge does not come through reason but through direct revelation. Gnostic beliefs emphasize the idea of achieving gnosis. This is a personal transcendence of the material body and a direct experience of God that transcends reason.
The idea that knowledge should be rational was especially popular in light of the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Reason has always been the measure of truth, but direct revelation is rarely met with the approval of orthodox Christianity.
The practitioners of gnosis identify the creator of the universe with the demiurge. This is a kind of materialistic god that is not the true God. The demiurge is a bad god instead of a good one. He traps people in a world of physical illusions. Gnostics therefore regard matter as something evil. In Gnosticism, we also encounter the Archons. These are not benevolent angels, but more like malevolent entities that feed on our physical urges.
Naturally, this belief of the Gnostics led to the practice of asceticism – the ritual denial of the body’s needs. One of the possible reasons why there are so few Gnostics is that many of them denied the sanctity of sex and considered reproduction itself a sin.
What is Hermeticism?
Hermeticism is based on the Hermetic writings of the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus which were written by several authors. The hermetic philosophy is outlined mostly in the form of dialogues in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Teleos Logos (Perfect Discourse or Asclepius).
In Hermeticism, God, who is characterless and without any quality other than goodness, is reflected by a divine intelligence or Nous. This Nous, through the demiurge or craftsman of the cosmos, gives order to the universe. Different Hermetic treatises offer slightly different cosmologies, but they always describe a chain of being from imperishable perfect divinity to matter.
The hermetic texts emphasize the monistic divine unity of all things in the universe and further explain that the reason we experience the world the way we do is because the universe is in constant motion.
Although in Hermeticism there is mention of salvation and the Son of God, who in Hermeticism is not man but the cosmos, there is no mention of original sin and no indication that people need to be saved through a prophet or they will be punished eternally. Moreover, there are occasional references to the transmigration of souls.
Gnosticism versus Hermeticism
Gnosticism and Hermeticism flourished in Hellenized Egypt during the same period. The practitioners of both movements lived in the same spiritual climate and encountered each other there. Both practitioners aimed to allow the soul to escape from the material realm and gain a personal experience of God.
Both groups believed that the fundamental relationship between God and man could be found through gnosis (suprational knowledge or understanding), they sought to “see” God, and in some cases to become one with God.
However, there are some significant differences between Hermeticism and Gnosticism concerning their philosophy, cosmology, theology, and anthropology:
1. Hermeticism is optimistic about God which it calls “the Good” and “Father”, while many forms of Christian Gnosticism were pessimistic about the creator. Various Christian Gnostic sects saw the cosmos as the product of an evil creator, and thus as evil itself, while hermeticists saw the cosmos as a beautiful divine creation and as the brother of humanity;
2. Although both practitioners agreed on God’s transcendence over the universe and that He is completely unknowable, Hermeticism is monistic and believes that God can still be understood through an inner connection they call “Nous”;
3. While the gnostics often indulged in mythological references, hermetic texts are relatively devoid of mythology;
4. Both practitioners believe that humanity is originally divine and has become “entangled” in the material world. The gnostics believe that humanity has become a slave to passion and has moved away from its divine nature. As a result, the gnostics often adopt a pessimistic view of humanity, while the hermeticists believe that humanity fell in love with Nature and that therefore our relationship with the world is one of love and caretaking.
5. Hermeticism maintains a positive attitude toward humanity and the world. Hermeticists believe that the human body is not evil in itself, but that materialistic impulses and desires, such as sexual desire, are the cause of evil in the world;
6. Gnosticism is pessimistic – for example, embodiment is a prison – while hermeticism is more life-affirming and views embodiment and incarnation as necessary experiences to get closer to God;
7. Hermeticism comes from a more formal Greek philosophical perspective, it is inspired by Platonism and Stoicism, while Gnosticism has more of a Christian religious/spiritual basis;
8. Gnosticism rejects the intermediate archetypal realm of souls, gods, divine spirits, and daimons. She sees this as deceptive. Gnostics view the material world as an evil creation. It is an extreme attitude that focuses only on the Absolute. Hermeticism takes a more balanced approach that considers all levels: the Absolute, the intermediate spiritual realms, and the material world. In Hermeticism, material reality is not seen as evil but instead is seen as a sacred creation of the Divine Spirit and as a brother to humanity. The hermetic initiates believe that everything comes from cosmic love;
9. Gnostics view the seven spheres as a prison, while hermetists use astrology as a tool for self-knowledge and liberation;
10. Gnostics see magic as a dark art, while hermetists distinguish between different forms of magic like Goetia and Theurgy which can be used to help humanity;
11. Gnosticism has a clear influence on conspiracy theorists in modern times. Hermeticists do not waste their time complaining about conspiracies but instead are busy with transforming darkness (ignorance) into light (knowledge).
Modern-day Hermeticism is not an orthodox but an orthopractical tradition. The practice is determined by the practitioner himself. Even the question of whether it is a monist, monotheistic, or polytheistic view of life is partly left to the practitioner. Although some hermetic texts can be used to argue for monotheism, they argue for a supreme God with multiple personal gods acting as intermediaries.
Today, both Hermeticism and Gnosticism have become the cornerstones of many modern religious and spiritual traditions. Spiritual traditions that oppose Christian dogma, such as modern Gnostics, Luciferians, Theosophists, etc., draw often heavily on Gnostic beliefs for the idea that the divine must be experienced directly and individually.
Practitioners of spiritual traditions who believe that the spiritual world and the physical world are the same and that one can get closer to God by getting to know oneself, purifying oneself from evil desires, and improving their lives and the lives of others are more likely to choose the hermetic philosophy.
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