I am beginning work on my article for The Blue Flower, Christmas edition, on the theme of nobility of spirit. I have found this theme fascinating in the work of Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox philosopher influenced by German Idealism, the Romantics and more recent thinkers like Thomas Mann and Rob Riemen. Doubtlessly, I will refine this part of the article as I expand on the various other expressions of what the Gnostics called the elite pneumatics or spirituals.
My anxiety about my country and the effect Brexit will have in the UK and on people living in Europe has somewhat relativised my understanding of the situation in the established churches. I am revolted by the level of corruption and self-interest in our political establishment and I see the same thing reflected in churches. Most I see about the present state of the RC Church is the mass of exchanges on Facebook – and the fact that there are as many truths as consciousnesses.
It is a temptation to reject any kind of institutional Christianity and seek the Gnostic way as a self-styled “spiritual” above the “plethora of human dross”, imagining our entitlement to all the things we seek. There are many myths about Gnosticism being more human, compassionate and caring about humanity, and I have been quite shocked. I have been doing some research into the “three categories” of people, and I have written this following section of an article. In this predetermined division of castes and classes of the unaccountable elite and the masses of soulless beasts masquerading as humans, we find many of the roots of corrupt Christianity and modern political totalitarianism, of ideologies based on Nietzsche and Darwin – and liberal capitalism.
Christianity is fundamentally the antithesis of the “survival of the fittest”. Its message turns conventional wisdom upside-down. It shows compassion for the weak and human empathy. However, it is a mistake to reduce Christianity to a moral code like in the 18th century Enlightenment. Gnosticism foundered with its idea of the spirituals, the psychics and the materialists, but excelled with the idea that we can find the Ubermensch in ourselves through nobility of spirit and aspiration for the transcendent. It is a world of paradoxes and mysteries.
Any idea of Catholicism being too flawed for it to be redeemed meets the idea expressed by Julius Evola, the Italian philosopher who was not a Fascist, but was near the ideology. He thought that the Church should be abandoned to its fate, but that the State must have a spiritual dimension. The Gnostic temptation is attractive, yet we see from the experience of the twentieth century where it can all go.
Pneumatics, Psychics and Hylics in Gnosticism
The division by the ancient Gnostic of humanity into three categories has always fascinated me, seeing that the vast majority of people we meet are interested in material things, status and money. The highest people were pneumatics or “spirituals”, from the Greek πνεῦμα. The others were psychics and hylics (materialists). The pneumatic lived at a contemplative level of life. The psychics were literalists, intellectuals, legalists, fundamentalists, attached to the letter. The hylics were the materialists, living only for sensual pleasure, perhaps known by the modern term of consumers.
Perhaps the most reputable of those who have studied Gnosticism from historical and theological points of view is Elaine Pagels. She approaches this subject of three “castes” of humans in her book about St Paul. We seem to find the roots of St Augustine’s theory of election and predestination in early Gnosticism, later reflected in Calvinism and Jansenism in that salvation is possible in spite of our free will, or rather through determinism. If we are free, we would choose evil and be predestined to damnation.
From this, we find that the less a person is free, the more he will show the characteristics of the spiritual, mystical and esoteric world view. Those who depend of free will depend of a literalist paradigm regarding morality and fidelity to exoteric religious observances. Valentinian Gnosticism was more subtle in its distinctions and overlapping. Knowledge of Gnosticism developed in the twentieth century thanks to several important discoveries of ancient texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is the richest and is easily available in English translation.
We find notions of three types of humans existing from the beginning, issuing from the offspring siblings of Eve. There were four children of Eve: Cain and Abel, Seth and Norea. The latter two would have been at the origin of a pneumatic or spiritual race, with a greater consciousness of their divine spark or eternal origins. If this is so, a third of humanity descends from that original “pneumatic race”, whilst the other two thirds make up the psychic and hylic races.
The Apocryphon of John goes into detail about the pneumatics who are saved even if they have committed sins of the flesh. The psychics have souls but no spirits, and are repeatedly reincarnated until they acquire gnosis. Finally, the hylics are predestined to damnation. It was not always an issue of races of humans (a subject which strikes fear into the minds of Europeans since World War II) but of levels of consciousness and spiritual initiation. There is a question of self-awareness, which we find in modern psychology. There is notion of a possibility of making a journey from the lower to the higher states, which escapes the old crude determinism. This journey is made through initiation into the mysteries and a long painful conversion. We also find the importance of distinguishing exoteric Christianity and inner esoteric mysticism. The latter was kept secret to protect the spiritually immature from confusion and misunderstanding.
In a person’s conversion, he would firstly be initiated into the keys of good morality, namely empathy for others and knowledge of ethics. Initiation into the life of the spirit came from awareness and experience of the divine in one’s inner spirit. In a certain way, it could be affirmed that the Gnostics were the earliest psychotherapists.
At the lower end, the materialists who had no interest in spiritual things were called fleshly, earthly or hylic, from the Greek word ὕλη. The Valentine Gnostics considered that every person had elements of all three categories, but that one would dominate. Some denied that hylics could climb higher, but not all. The hylics’ only concerns were material pleasures, food and sex, life at the level of non-human animals. They had no souls and faced annihilation at their death. They had no interest in higher things and lacked self-awareness. Reading these ancient descriptions, I am brought to see certain people of our own times. If these beings are not human, the implications are dramatic and unbearable to think about – unless you are one of them with dominant tendencies.
The “middle class” of humanity is the category of those who have souls but are “natural” or “ordinary”. They can commit evil and suffer the consequences, or can rise to the spiritual life. We might see the average decent Christian in this category, following the teachings of the Church and good morality.
This view of humanity is very pessimistic, akin to Jansenism and Calvinism. It is easy to explain, because these two puritan views were founded on St Augustine, who was before his conversion a Manichean. Manichaeism taught a notion of an eternal struggle between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness and evil. This ancient religion thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and rivalled Christianity before it succumbed to Islam. Augustine was clearly marked by his past. The idea that the elite pneumatics would be saved regardless of whatever evil they committed, and that hylics could not be saved, seems unfair. We are brought to think of Robert Burn’s satirical poem, Holy Willie’s Prayer in which a religious hypocrite contrasts his self-righteousness with damned babies gnashing their gums in hell. Can we know which category we or our loved ones belong to? Perhaps if we ask the question, we are not hylics, because hylics don’t care about knowing the truth about themselves. Whether someone is pneumatic or not, we cannot know or judge. In any case, my experience in organ building makes me smile at the term, since the least efficient or reliable system that makes pressing keys on the keyboard play the pipes is called tubular pneumatic. Perhaps the knowledge of transcendence is something we search for in life rather than it being a subject of self-consciousness.
Such an analysis of humanity was crude, but it was a beginning of a quest for nobility, elevation, meaning to life. Are there humans without souls? I have mixed ideas, preferring to believe that no one is born without a chance of redemption, a notion at the root of opposition to capital punishment. However, reading about serial killers and men like Hitler makes us wonder. The Valentinian system seems quite arbitrary, and fails to explain why people are predestined to one thing or the other. As I say, it is a beginning to some other understanding, the three categories existing simultaneously in us all. The problem is that such an ideas, allowing for more optimism, is not found in any traditional scriptural text, and some humans are clearly absolutely evil, psychopaths as they would be described in our times. Gnosticism shows its outer limits exactly on this point. We will find ourselves shrinking from their unpleasantness about women or the idea that some people have no souls and can be executed with as little compunction as swatting flies. The idea of the three kinds of humans has its appeal and fascinates us, and most people we deal with in life do show the slightest interest in anything other than their immediate wants and needs. They do not even show interest in literature, art and music, anything beyond the basest forms of entertainment. Do we ourselves forfeit our own souls when we deny the possibility of theirs, being but one step away from genocide, ethnic cleansing, eugenics and sending train-loads of innocent people to concentration camps and gas chambers? This alone will consign Gnosticism to the museum of philosophical dinosaurs and push us to seek something more human and truly spiritual.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the faults of orthodox Christianity, and this is one of the objectives of this essay. The record of or Christianity has incorporated some of those elements of Gnostic anthropology through St Augustine, the Reformers and the Jansenists. We find these notions of intrinsically evil persons in any system of penal law that provides for capital executions and life prison sentences without the possibility of parole. Each and every one of us will continue to be of two minds, unless there is a higher understanding. At this point, it seems to be best to leave the subject of human evil once and for all and concentrate on our capacity to seek and embrace the highest level of life.
 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, New York 1992.
 Marvyn Mayer, ed., The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume, New York 2007.
 Ibid, pp 103-132.
 Cf. Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, Three Rivers Press, 2001, pp 70-73.
 See Dr Robert Hare’s website on psychopathy – http://www.hare.org/. The main (but not exhaustive) characteristics Hare lists in the clinical diagnosis of psychopathy are a glib and superficial manner, lack of remorse, guilt and moral conscience, lack of empathy, deceitful and manipulative ways of dealing with others.