Member Login








In Person

Art & Literature


Philosophy & Religion

Peace & Conflict

Shamanism & Rebirth

Politics of Diagnosis

Therapeutic Communities

·SLS Annual·

Submit a Paper

·About the SLS·

Site Staff


Patrons & Sponsors

Join the Society

Contact us

· Resources ·

Search the Site

Notes and Notation

A Timeline

Further Links

About this site

In the News

SLS Newsletter


Associate site

The International R.D. Laing Institute


Colloquia Topics Index [link]Art & Literature Index

The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism*

Paul Zweig


During the dozen years since The Heresy of Self-Love was first published, cultural debate in America has teetered between extremes. In the late 1960s, an appetite for communal experiences of every sort gripped the country with millennial fervor. New ways of being together were offered as solations to every kind of discontent, as if man could be made anew by some new configuration of sociability. There were communes to replace the liarrowing strictures of personal intimacy; block associations and cooperative schools to dissolve the separateness of urban living, which had come to seem a special claustrophobia of our time. Political marches and meetings-rock concerts, too-became forms of exalting secular communion. These were years when merely private experience tended to be thought of as an embarrassment, a form of personal failure keyed to judgmental words like "repression," and "alienation." At the same time as if by paradox, a spirit of exuberant experiment with the limits of privacy became popular. "Liberation" through drugs, sex, and modes of dress; a growing fascination with experiential religion represented an a empt to transform the very nature of privacy. "Self," hypostasized into an oddly precise, delimited entity, entered the cultural vocabulary, either as a term of invective or as the watchword of a new form of freedom. Yet again, it seemed, a legend of ancient Greece, one of the less dramatic of Ovid's little stories, had become an intimidating paradigm of the moral life: the story of Narcissus, who refused to love anyone but himself, and thereby loved liiniself to death....

My Subject in The Heresy of Self-Love is the West's millennia-long fascination with Narcissus: deploring his inhuman solitude, admiring him as a figure of fulfillment and transcendence. In the speculative fantasies of the Gnostics, in the programmatic self-indulgence of the Medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit, in the almost objectless love poems of Provence, in Adam Smith's theory of self-interest, in the radical social criticism of the nineteenth century, we find the same cult of self-love, along with the same foreboding that self-love will undermine the teetering fabric of sociability. The recent invective against "narcissism" is finally an old story retold: not the final illness of "late capitalism," but an episode in the sinuous conflict between the individual and society which has been the signature of Western cultural history....


History, it is said, is like the river in which we can never bathe twice. The waters change, the events replace one another. In naming it, already we are mistaken, for we are naming yesterday's river. Yet the changes of history often assume patterns which seem familiar, as if the repertory of human forms were limited. The historian then discovers similarities from one age to another, only partly concealed beneath the surface of the events themselves. Such a resemblance has often been felt between the modem period and the late Roman Empire.

During the centuries after Augustus, a curious double language became current among the citizens of Rome. The res publica continued to command a range of ceremonies and allegiances whose performance was scrupulously observed; but increasingly the citizens acted out his "duty" in a spirit of passiveness and perfunctory obedience. Rome, with its military conception of government, demanded no more than this language of conformity. And this, as Burckhardt has pointed out, allowed a zone of private values to appear, entirely divorced from the res publica.

Here a second language came to be spoken, a language parallel to the public one and unperturbed by it. It was, on the whole, a religious language, charged with emotion, one whose intimate concerns were not only anti-authoritarian but, ultimately, antisocial. The spiritual allegiance which their emperor no longer demanded of them the Romans gave to Oriental deities whose cults became universal. As the Roman's public language became one of empty obedience, this private language expressed need for emotional communion. As publicly he was victimized by the law, and by sweeping economic forces, privately he searched for some form of personal salvation. It is notorious that official culture deteriorated under the Empire, but this private, religious culture continued to flourish, until forced by its very triumph to betray its origin and become public, in officialized Christianity.

This double language of orthodoxy and subversion, which so well characterizes our own society, was unprecedented before the years of the late Empire. For the first time, a citizen could organize his sensibility around a system of antisocial, and even antiworldly, values. It is not surprising, therefore, that our modern distrust of "society," and our own "romantic" traditions of revolt against conformity, should lead us to find a congenial spirit in the society of the corrupt Empire. In the second and third centuries, as in the nineteenth century, a new kind of "individualism" came to be valued, all of whose energy was devoted to subverting the powers of worldly authority, in the name of some entirely private range of emotions.

The Pax Romana had made the Empire into what Gibbon described as a vast prison, with no escape for those who resisted its authority. It was a prison as vast as the world; and this is recognized in the religious terminology of the Neoplatonists, the Christians, and especially the Gnostics, for whom "this world" was literally a prison, enclosing each citizen in his own isolated predicament. But if the world was a prison, then the only appeal could be "out of this world," away from its authority and toward some new authority whose main evidence lay not in laws, no matter how brilliantly codified, but in a certain quality of experience.

Such was the atmosphere in which Christianity first gained its strength, rejecting the legalistic aspect of Judaism, along with the authority of the Empire, while it appealed, in the writings of St. Paul, to spiritual conviction as individual as that of "grace." Yet from the very first the Christians moderated this Pauline "individualism," limiting its mystical bias with a shrewd sense of organization and earthly responsibility. Already during the first and second centuries the new Church showed signs of an absolutist tendency. In each city of the Empire, the Christians assembled under the authority of a bishop, whose word was spiritual law. Their religion made them citizens in the City of God, but it also made them members of a strict, increasingly organized community. The Christians owed their success as much to this organizational shrewdness as to the richness of their doctrine.

But the double allegiance which characterized the spirit of the Empire soon became a problem for the Church as well. By the fourth century, the success of Christianity was so widespread that Constantine could appeal to its organizational genius in order to consolidate his own power. As the Church allowed itself to become a political instrument, identified now with the maintenance of law and order, it had to confront its own radical message in the doctrines of various heretical movements, and even more spectacularly in the spiritual anarchism of Egypt, where the desert saints had begun to perform their feats of extreme asceticism, often in defiance of the Church itself. Of the sects and heresies which competed with Christianity during the first centuries, the most dangerous, if we are to judge from the polemics of the early fathers, were the numerous, highly individualized sects which we characterize commonly as "Gnostic."[1]

They were dangerous because their ethical and soteriological concerns were so close to those of Christianity; but especially also because they embodied the uncompromising individualism which the Christians themselves bad been led to modify, in the interests of Church discipline. R. M. Grant has indeed wondered whether certain early Gnostic sects, like that of Simon Magus for example, were not simply radical Paulinians, and therefore all the more troubling for the Church.

The Gnostics-like the Christians and the Neoplatonists described life on earth, and the earth itself, as a tragic corruption of the Spirit. Mankind, indeed the entire cosmos, lived under the stigma of original sin. The spiritual duty of each individual became to undo this sin in himself by undoing all his ties with worldly experience. The Gnostic sects, despite vast differences among them, were uncompromising on this point. Unlike the Christians, who believed that even the fallen earth had been divinely created, the Gnostics condemned the world entirely. God was absent from it, they felt; its laws and conditions were entirely perverse. Even the stars were signs of worldly oppression, and therefore hateful. The only trace of the bidden God that men could discover lay buried in their souls, "sleeping" or "drunk" with earthly poison. By awakening this "spark," the Gnostic escaped from his earthly prison.

The Gnostic imagination is powerfully subversive. Nothing in the world claimed their allegiance if not that concealed fragment of their being which they were taught to cultivate. This extreme "individualism" is reflected in the chaotic organization of the sects, but also in the freedom with which Gnostic doctrines were continually changing in the hands of imaginative individuals with a gift for poetry or speculation. The sects attacked by Hippolytus,[2] in the Philosophumena, belong to a single milieu, that of third-century Rome.

But the innumerable variations among them, the shifts in doctrine from sect to sect, show the small value these Gnostics placed on orthodoxy, and the great individual freedom their vision necessarily allowed. The Gnostic treatment of Biblical and Greek themes shows how conscious they were of the subversive energy released by their theology. They reversed traditional values, turning the Old Testament God into an inferior Demiurge (Marcion); the serpent into a "pneumatic" agent whose role was to induce men to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (the Ophites). Cain, the rebel and wanderer, became a hero (the Cainites); while Prometheus was invested with the glory of having transgressed Zeus's law, in favor of mankind. Long before they were rediscovered by nineteenth-century romanticism, Satan and Prometheus were admired and praised by the Gnostics. At the center of Gnostic speculation is bewilderment at the overwhelming presence of evil in the world, and a need to account for this evil while preserving the absolute goodness of God. Their most extravagant fantasies are meant to answer this need for "understanding" which is expressed in the famous Valentinian[3] formula: "What liberates is knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth...."

To the Christian emphasis on love and faith the Gnostics add a desire for knowledge, though by this they mean not only rational but also mystical knowledge; the speculative gnosis imparted by their treatises is meant only as preparation for that moment of illumination when the "sleeping" spark in the soul will be reawakened. Their speculative gift led many Gnostic sects to elaborate long, sometimes impressive, metaphysical poems in order to answer the questions asked in the Valentinian formula. The most extravagant fantasies were proposed to explain God's original act of creation, the fall from Light into Darkness, man's painful fate as an "alien" in the world of matter, and the "way" he must follow back into the world of Light. When the inspiration of such great second-century Gnostics as Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion deteriorated in the hands of later followers, the cosmological fantasies tended to become excessive, filled with repetition and mediocre allegory. Texts like the Books of Pistis Sophia or the Book of Job are characterized by this speculative extravagance which has led all but the most recent religious historians to accept more or less at face value the accusations made by Irenaeus, Tertullian,[4] Hippolytus and other Church Fathers, who brushed aside the whole mood of Gnosticism as a kind of religious madness.

Yet the Gnostic poems, at their best, reveal a moral awareness far more sensitive than any to be found in second or third century Christian writings. Valentinus, from what little we know of him, was surely one of the great religious minds of his century. The subversive energy of the Gnostics gave shape and insight to their fantasy, leading them often to discover themes of religious psychology that are of the greatest interest to us, for these themes will be rediscovered by a whole tradition of subversive individualism in the West.

Although the first Hermetic book,[5] entitled Poimandres, belongs to a Pagan strain of Gnosticism, it elaborates material common to the entire mood of Gnostic speculation, including typical references to the Old Testament story of Genesis. It is particularly interesting because the author is concerned, at crucial moments, with providing a motive for the cosmic events he describes. In doing so, be treats openly themes which remain implicit or are merely alluded to in other Gnostic writings. The treatise takes the form of a vision that has possessed the author in a moment of meditation, "his mind mightily lifted up ... his bodily senses curbed." In this state of heightened awareness, he "sees" an answer to those questions of whence, why, and wherefore which obsessed the Gnostic mind:

Suddenly everything was opened before me in a flash, and I be held a boundless view, everything became Light, serene and joyful. And I became enamored with the sight. And after a while there was a Darkness borne downward ... appalling and baleful, tortuously coiled, resembling a serpent. Then I saw this Darkness change into some humid nature, indescribably agitated and giving off smoke as from a fire and uttering a kind of sound unspeakable, mournful.

The boundless Light preceding all creation allows "after a while" a contrary force of Darkness to arise within it. This, in turn, becomes the "humid nature," or alternatively the "Boule" or Will of God: a female principle, cut off from the Light which gave birth to it. From here on, the treatise describes the various confrontations and complicities that arise between the Light and its own emanation, the Darkness, leading to the formation of the Cosmos, the imprisonment of humanity within the Cosmos, and finally the ascent of man back into the Light. To this extent, the Poimandres is typical of most Gnostic writings. After its creation, the feminine "humid nature" "receives" into it the Logos, or Word of God-the sexual connotations here are obvious-which then contributes to fashioning order out of chaos. It rises above the water and earth and becomes the highest portion of the Cosmos, the element of air and fire, akin to the Demiurge who then completes the work of ordering the Darkness into a world. It is at this point that the tragedy of man's fall begins. God, once the Cosmos bas been created, allows the energy of His divine Love to operate once again. Now that the spheres have been set whirling "with thundrous speed," a new desire moves inside the Light:

Now the Nous, Father of all, being Life and Light, brought forth Man like to Himself, of whom he became enamored as his own child, for he was very beautiful, since he bore the Father's image; for indeed even God became enamored of His own form, and He delivered over to him all His works.

The Primal Man described in this passage will, through his own fall, give birth to fallen humanity, playing the same role for the Hermetics as does Adam in the Genesis story, which is probably alluded to here. The figure of Primal Man has its equivalent in other Gnostic texts, but the Poimandres treats him differently, for it makes his creation appear gratuitous. Elsewhere Man, Adam, Primal Man, Anthropos play a definite role in the creation of the cosmos; they complete some part of the work which here is entirely attributed to the Logos and the Demiurge. Apparently for this Hermetic author, God created Primal Man simply for the delight He then felt in loving His own image. Echoes of this theme can be found elsewhere among the Gnostics, especially among the Valentinians, who avoid, as the Poimandres also does, the extremes of Persian dualism.

In the Philosophumena, Hippolytus reports the speculations of a third-century Valentianian sect. God, they said, is love. But love cannot exist without an object; therefore it is in God's nature to create something separate from Himself, so that He may exist fully by loving it. What He creates, however, must be worthy of His love; He therefore allows to emanate from Himself the ('Pleroma,)' a presence which is and yet is not Him. By creating the Pleroma, and subsequently the entire cosmos, God remains both the object and subject of His own love. This theme of divine self-multiplication also appears among the Simonians, for whom "there is one power, divided into upper and lower, begetting itself, increasing itself, seeking itself, finding itself, being its own mother, its own father ... its own daughter, its own son..." At some point, God is moved to an act of pure self-delight; and this, in turn, gives rise to a series of cosmic intrigues which transform the original creation, luring it down to its final degraded kingdom: mankind and his earth. For man's tragedy, in the Hermetic account, has only just begun. The "humid nature," fashioned into a cosmos, with ascending spheres and hierarchies, is ruled over at God's behest by the Demiurge. Meanwhile, beyond the outer limit of the cosmos, Primal Man lives on, a pure duplicate of the Light, until, weary of his idleness, he asks God for the power to rule and create in his own right. God grants the request; He associates Primal Man with the hierarchies of the Demiurge, until one day, out of restlessness, pride, or curiosity, Man violates the limit of his power:

He [Primal Man] who had full power over the world of things mortal and over the irrational animals bent down through the Harmony and having broken through the vault showed to lower Nature the beautiful form of God. When she beheld him who had in himself inexhaustible beauty and all the forces of the Governors combined with the form of God, she smiled in love; for she had seen the reflection of this most beautiful form of Man in the water and its shadow upon the earth. He too, seeing his likeness present in her, reflected in the water, loved it and desired to dwell in it. At once with the wish, it became reality, and he came to inhabit the form devoid of reason. And Nature, having received into herself the beloved, embraced him wholly, and they mingled: for they were inflamed with love.

Primal Man has broken through the ordered circuit of the spheres; like Narcissus, he bas fallen in love with his image reflected in the water, and this inordinate love makes him a captive of the dark world he was meant to rule over. Once again the downward progress of God's creation turns upon an act of self delight: Narcissus loves his image; watery Nature, spying this emanation of God's splendor, becomes infatuated with it. Her chaotic waters draw down the straying self-lover, until they have imprisoned his beauty in "the form devoid of reason." Because of Primal Man's uncontrollable love, death and suffering are introduced into the world. A portion of the Light world i.e., God's image-has been forceably [sic] mingled with the Darkness, where it will be imprisoned until some future time. Meanwhile, these "sparks" of light, fragments of the Primal Man, wander in exile through the world, "asleep" in the "souls" of mankind.

Thus man's fate of exile in the world originates with this wrong imitation of God's self-delight. Just as the cosmos itself is a deformed image of the archetypal Light world, so the fall of Primal Man is a replica of God's original self-mirroring through which Primal Man himself was created. But while God's self-love was creative and pure, Man, through his "error," "has become a slave ... though he was androgynous, having issued from the androgynous Father ... he is conquered by love ..." These two acts of self-love lie at the heart of the Hermetic vision, in the Poimandres. They help us to understand certain obscurities in the text, such as the seemingly redundant role of Primal Man. As we now see it, Man's presence contains the key to the poem, for he embodies the original self-delight which first impelled God to create. The Darkness was "home downward" through the Light because of this impulse to love Himself which is part of God's nature. There remains, however, another question to which the text yields no immediate answer. Why must the androgynous purity of God's self-delight be reversed by Man's self-delusion, which, instead of joy, brought guilt and pain into the world? The Gnostics' mythical turn of mind led them to project their speculative insights onto heroic figures, who then reveal themselves to us by acting out their part in the tale. Their metaphysical poems are allegories of religious psychology. In this case, the Poimandres projects onto its allegorical hermes an insight into the nature of pride: that its self-delighting purity implies as well a painful loneliness. This mythical division into purity and guilt dramatizes the hidden complexity of self-love. It is the technique of storytellers, who make the opposite sides of a dilemma come alive in the characters of the hero and the villain. Hero and villain belong to one another, and therefore must choose a common ground on which to meet. Yet one acts out his fate and is wrong; the other, for deeds not unlike those of his enemy, is glorified.

In the same way, the Poimandres dramatizes the two inextricable passions of self-love. God's act is all Light; it is generous, self-contained, and free. Man's act is all Darkness; it is rooted in arrogance, delusion, and loneliness. When Man and Nature embrace each other, they abandon themselves to a false love; for Man has seen only his image, while Nature has seen only a reflection of God's beauty. Their sexual union is based on blindness to each other, and humanity is born out of their deluded egotism. Variations of this theme are found often in Gnostic writings. The potency of the mirror and its image, recognized in magicoreligious practices throughout the world, was of great service to the Gnostic poets as a narrative device for conveying the transmission of being from one level of creation to another. With the Gnostics, however, it is a story of degradation, a fall from the creator into His image; as in this Mandaean poem:

Abathur [one of the Uthras, plotting the creation of a world] goes into that world [of darkness] ... He sees his face in the black water, and his likeness and son is fanned unto him out of the black water.

In a text closer to the atmosphere of Christian Gnosticism - the recently published Hypostasis of the Archons - the figure is employed in a way not unlike that used in the Poimandres, as an instrument of self-delusion by which the Higher is lured down into the Lower:

The Incorruptibility looked down upon the regions of the water. Its image revealed itself in the water and the powers of darkness fell in love with it. The archons took counsel and said, "Come, let us make a man from dust ..." they formed [this man] after their own body and after the image of God which had revealed itself in the water ... 'We will equal the image in our formation, so that it [the image] shall see this likeness of itself, [be attracted to it] and we may trap it in our formation.

Self-reflection, the fashioning of an alter-ego, plays an important part in the Gnostic myths of creation. In each case, self-love is portrayed as a gateway to man's fall. But the Poimandres, the Hypostasis of the Archons, and indeed all the major Gnostic works, are concerned with the fall only as a necessary prelude to their doctrine of man's redemption. They are, in the main, treatises of salvation. Their speculative poetry is no idle fantasy; it is an initiation into the gnosis which will enable straying souls to discover the true "way." They go on, therefore, to describe how that spark of divinity in man, through which he may climb back into the lost Heaven of Light, is also impelled by the energy of self-love. Because God loves Himself, He will overcome the barriers of material corruption, in order to draw back into His original Light the fragments of His image in men. This is the second half of the Gnostic story: the painful climb of the soul back to God.

According to the Gnostics, therefore, man's fate is circular. But the mounting of the arc is not simply a reversed image of its descent. Between the two movements, a change has occurred. The story of man's fall is exactly that of the world's creation: God, the Demiurge, and Primal Man engage in a series of cosmic events through which God's image is lured down to imprisonment in the world. Only at the nadir of the fall is the human race born out of the strayed pieces of the Light. From now on, each exiled individual carries a fragment of God within him, at the "apex" of his soul. It is by looking inward, by awakening this divine spark, that one can eventually free it from its earthly prison, allowing it-and oneself-to rise up through the material spheres to Heaven. If the fall of man takes on the aspect of myth and allegory, his ascent back to God becomes an affair of individual psychology. Each of us carries God back to Himself, when we accept the revelation of inward knowledge –gnosis–and free ourselves from bondage to the laws of the world. This is the meaning of the advice attributed by the Philosophumena, to a certain Monoimus:

Do not look for God and the creation and other like things, look for Him -by starting in yourself and learn who it is in you, that possesses all things without question, and says, "My God, my spirit, my thought, my soul, my body." Learn where sorrow, joy, love, and hate come from; why we come without wishing it, and love without wanting to. If you look for these things correctly, you will find it in yourself.

By sinking passionately into oneself, the individual restores the spark of God-his own true self-to its divine origin. The Gnostic thus finds himself engaged personally in the adventure of the universe. He struggles up out of the world's impurity by turning inward and fanning the divine spark in the soul. In so doing, he neutralizes the self-infatuation of Primal Man and soothes that other, better love of the Light for its luminous self. His arm in this struggle of Light against Darkness is still another nuance of self-delight: the mystical inward turning counseled by Monoimus.

If there are any doubts about the meaning of this psychological-mystical ascension, they will be resolved, I think, by one of the loveliest Gnostic texts, The Hymn of the Pearl, located in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostle Thomas. The hymn tells the story of a boy, raised in "the kingdom of (his) father's house," who is sent one day by his family on a journey to the East, in search of a certain pearl. Once arrived in the Eastern land, be loses his way and forgets his original mission. This is a symbolic narrative of the soul's descent into bondage and its sleep" in the world of Darkness. But one day the lost boy receives a message from above, which awakens him from his forgetfulness. He remembers now who he is, and where he comes from-those very things which Valentinus' formula counsels the Gnostic to seek for in himself. In this state of awakened knowledge he seizes the pearl and starts his upward journey. As he approaches the confines of his true home, the poem continues:

I went forth ... My robe of glory which I had put off and my mantle which went over it, my parents ... sent to meet me by their treasurers who were entrusted therewith. Its splendor I bad forgotten, having left it as a child in my father's house. As I now beheld the robe, it seemed to me suddenly to become a mirror-image of myself: myself entire I saw in it, and it entire I saw in myself, that we were two in separateness and yet again one in the sameness of our forms.

The boy of the hymn represents the archetypal savior, the messenger from above, the alien wandering in the desert of the world who is common to most of the Gnostic poems. But the gentle humanity of the text adds another dimension to its meaning. The archetype melts into the human, the cosmological actor becomes also the humble Gnostic awakening to knowledge of his divine origin. The boy who has put off his soiled earthly garment-his body-in exchange for his "robe of glory" is the it awakened" individual who has discovered, at the heart of knowledge, the object he has been seeking: the "mirror-image" of his true self. In the Gnostic imagination, the seeker is identical with what he seeks. Looking for God, he is looking for himself; while God, who draws man up out of bondage, seeks nothing less than His own image.

What the Gnostics give us, finally, is a universe of passional laws, where half-mythical, 'half-abstract figures project their desires into space and bring about, almost as a by-product, the material Darkness of creation. But when we inspect these passions and their aborted results, we find that we are dealing at every level with interlocking circles of Narcissi, each desiring only himself-God, Primal Man, earthly humanity: three great actors on the stage of the world, each seeking blindly, or lucidly, for his own image. Of the three, the part of earthly humanity is the most difficult, because in it good and evil are equally present. To the extent that man shares the fault-the illusory self-delight -of his ancestor, he is confined to his prison and must suffer death. To the extent that he can accept the divine self-seeking of the Light, he is freed and puts on the "robe of glory": the mirror-image" which he had forgotten in his father's house. According to this view, good and evil are not two opposing forces ranged against each other in the battle for man's soul. Instead they are like strange twins, so much alike that one can single Passionate involvement with self. What emerges, finally, is one who loves God and who, because of this, is God. Here too the seeker bas become identical with what he seeks; and Simon is perfectly within the logic of his vision when he declares that he is none other than the divinity Himself. Although the Gnostic cosmology erects a staunch barrier between the Creator and His fallen creatures, with cons and imprisoning spheres between, it allows a paradoxical intimacy between the illuminated individual and his God. For the spark in the soul which marks each of us as an alien in this world is not merely a reflected light, or a mirror, or a divine signal, as it was most often for Christian theologians; it was thought to be a fragment of God Himself. By awakening it, one in fact became God. Most Gnostic sects allowed for a simple hierarchy among their initiates, the highest rank being that of Perfecti: those whose spiritual gift was so apparent that they were considered to be already "perfect," more God than man. This trait also characterized the neognostical Cathars a thousand years later; though the "confusion" it implies between God and man gave rise, among the Cathars, to the strictest asceticism.

Simon Magus dramatizes still another paradox of the Gnostic imagination which was inherited, in one form or another, by the traditions of Christian heresy. The condemnation of bodily existence becomes, with the Gnostic, a masterful defense of interior freedom. 'the profane world is described as an aborted unreality; yet each individual harbors within him a pure road starting in his soul-in his imagination-and ending in God. By giving free rein to his religious fantasy, the Gnostic poet created a world with his words. His imagination itself became godly as he promulgated Light and Darkness, Pleroma, Demiurge, and Cosmic tragedies. This poetic self-transformation takes on another more radical form with Simon, who turns not only his words but his gestures and his very being into a god.

This "excess" of spiritual pride crops up in the Christian world with fascinating regularity during the next nineteen hundred years. For example, the resemblance, between the Simonians and those later, eschatological sects of Eudes de l'Etoile and of Tanchelm in the twelfth century is striking. We are told that Simon was known in Latin surroundings by the name of Faustus, the favored one. And it has been argued that the European legend of Faust descends ultimately from this "arch-heretic" of the first centuries. Faust's lust for power represents one of the constant passions of the European psyche: the longing for a final, all-powerful solitude to which the world itself must submit. Faust, like Simon the Gnostic, wanted to become the god of a universe which mirrored his most hidden potentialities.


1 Gnosticism. This term is used to designate a highly fragmented religious movement of late antiquity with which the early Church came in contact. Gnosticism seems to have flourished most vigorously during the second century, though the first Gnostics may well have been contemporaries of Christ or St. Paul; the Manicheans of the fourth and fifth centuries are also thought of as belonging to the Gnostic movement. The mystical preoccupations of the Gnostic sects formed a kind of bridge between pagan and Christian spirituality. Gnostic influence was felt throughout large portions of the late Roman Empire: from Rome to Egypt, Syria, and Greece. The development of Christian doctrine was, to a large extent, a reaction against the competing doctrines of the Gnostics.

2 Hyppolytus An important theologian and martyr (165-235), who lived in Rome during the bulk of his ecclesiastical career. The Philosophumena is his most important work. In it he seeks to show that the various Christian heresies are traceable to false pagan philosophies.

3 Valentinus founded the most profound and influential Gnostic school of the second century. He was born in the Nile delta, and received a Greek education in the schools of Alexandria, where he became a religious teacher and a Christian. According to Tertullian, Valentinus was at first a member of the orthodox Christian community in Rome where he was highly regarded "because he was brilliant and most eloquent." Little is known of the rest of his life. After he broke with the local Church, he is thought to have returned to Egypt where he was probably accepted as a loyal member of the Egyptian Church.

4 Tertullian is one of the greatest early Christian writers (b. 155). He was a stern polemicist and is credited with having formulated a central paradox of Christian faith: "I believe because it is absurd." Born of pagan parents in Carthage, he was converted to Christianity relatively late in life, before gradually drifting into violent disagreement with the Church. Irenaeus (130-200) was presumably born in Asia Minor. His life was largely devoted to formulating and defining the Christian canon of Biblical texts, setting firm limits to orthodox doctrine, in opposition to the syncretic tendency of the Gnostics.

5 Corpus Hermeticum The body of the theological writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum probably dates from the first three centuries A.D. They were popularly attributed, as their name indicates, to the god Hermes Trismegistos, as he was called in Greek, or Thoth, as he was called in Egyptian. The Hermetic Corpus as a whole is not particularly Gnostic, though it contains elements related to Gnosticism, as in the Poimandres. The books of the Corpus are marked by a turgid mystical piety. On the whole it seems unlikely that there was any well defined Hermetic community or "Church." The Hermetics were more concerned with magic, alchemy, and occult medicine, and it is this connection which accounts for the frequent references to Hermes Trismegistos in Medieval and Renaissance literature.

The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism

Paul Zwieg
Princeton University Press, 1960

Excerpts appearing on these pages are from the Paperback Edition (Princeton, 1980)

How to cite a webpage

Comments and suggestions on the content and/or any problems with the display of this page would be appreciated by the admin. Thanks.

Locations of visitors to this page