In the long history of mankind, there comes a time when an individual awakens to the presence of soul and its resulting assertion. From then onward, all life becomes a school for the unfoldment of potential qualities, for the refinement of character leading to the ultimate perfection of the truly human being. Such a one stands out as a radiant figure whose presence, even, may catalyze those ready for enflamement like the tinder for the spark of the lighted match. Millennia ago there were schools and institutions for establishing the conditions that would enable the individual to bring the higher potential to atonement with the outer person. Some time more than 2,000 years ago, such schools were known as gnostic or the equivalent in other languages. Gnosis (wisdom-knowledge) was viewed as the path leading to an understanding of Man, his presence on earth, and destiny.
Since the discovery in Egypt in 1945 of gnostic papyrus codices, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library after the place where they were found, widespread curiosity about the gnostic communities has arisen. Previous knowledge about them was confined to propaganda produced by their antagonists within the church. These books made available in English translation fill in a picture faintly limned by the one or two isolated texts, such as the Pistis Sophia, found in the last 100-150 years.
The writings now made available to us all convey the impression that the gnostic Christians viewed the earliest texts of the religion symbolically. Their view was that these writings were not meant to be taken literally, for they had an inner and indeed profound meaning. To the committed Gnostic these texts were "guide books" for the unfoldment of the real human being hidden within the psychophysical caskets we believe to be our real selves. However, in fact Gnosticism should not be limited to Christianity, or really to any one sect, for in varying forms it provided the heart-life of many other religions in the Near East and the Orient, as well as the early days of our Western civilization.
The gnostic Christians saw their gnosis as a means of reaching the goal of a spiritual illumination, rather than as a system of doctrines or a matter of blind faith. From the texts it is evident that their goal was to achieve an epiphany or "showing forth" of the god within each and every individual. A favorite author among the Gnostics was St. Paul, and they classified the human constitution as he did: into body (soma); soul (psuche); and spirit (pneuma). They saw the culmination of human experience as the self-conscious liberation of the divine imprisoned within the personal man.
The Gnostic viewed the universe as a bipolar field of activity: Aeons or divine/spiritual essences on the one hand, and Archons or semi-material entities on the other. However, this duality, acknowledged by so many systems of past ages, has been misinterpreted by later generations of Gnostics to mean a warfare between Divinity and Matter. But the contrary is the case. The more we understand ourselves, the more we perceive our oneness with the totality of life; that is, the spiritual and material aspects of reality only seem to be disparate, a duality. They are actually the positive and negative poles of one life-giving energy. The material world is not evil per se; it is the mirror-image of the divine world. The view that matter attracts or seduces spirit to mingle with it and holds it almost like a prisoner, is a later misunderstanding. In the earliest gnostic teachings it was the responsibility of spirit to penetrate matter and elevate it through the refinement of its qualities.
In a similar fashion, the Aeon at the heart of every human being has assumed the task of refining the transient ego and its personality into a consciousness like its own. There are as many Aeons as there are hierarchies or families of beings within the "world without end," to use the church term in the gnostic sense. The gnostic pattern of growth formulates a succession of emanations first from the primordial essence of deity. The birth of the divine "spark" relates not to any one being particularly, but to the central driving energy in the heart of every entity from atoms to universes.
Mythic scenes that have come down to us from antiquity may be interpreted in many ways, but one of the chief depictions implies the process of development from unself-conscious existence to full expression of the truly human qualities that verge on the godlike. The many schools of Gnosticism all inculcated knowledge rather than mere acceptance or belief, and they taught the primacy of the spiritual nature of the cosmos and man. Early Gnosticism conceived the world as being ensouled, with every particle similarly endowed.
What does it mean to refer to the perfectibility of man? In a valuable monograph, titled "Perfectibility of Man," Professor John Passmore suggests that "Man is perfectible, in so far as he can conquer every kind of disorder or conflict in his soul." (The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, vol. 3, p. 463. Dr. Passmore was formerly Professor of Philosophy at Australian National University, Institute of Advanced Studies, Canberra.) Would it not be better to regard what takes place as a transmutation rather than a conquest or, perhaps, as a "sea-change," so that the characteristics of the soul, like the garments of the players in Shakespeare's Tempest, emerge pure and made fresh as new? Obviously, an individual must need more than one lifetime to achieve perfection.
There is a much closer relationship between human beings and the divine intelligences pervading the universe than the strictly formal religions suggest. The world and everything that we see around us came into being as the result of divinity manifesting as spirit, as mind, as the Word or Logos. This happened also with the miniature universes that are the units of mankind and of every species of living beings, from gigantic to minute.
Man, housing within his outer personality both soul and spirit, is etherealizing himself gradually through the pluses and minuses of daily life that he has himself initiated. The spirit (pneuma) tarries until the soul purifies and transmutes itself to be like its parent which is itself the vehicle of a divine spark that originates beyond the material world. If the great cosmos (macrocosm) is "enclosed in seven spheres," so is man as a microcosm. Some commentators have compared this to the skins of an onion, which implies separation between the seven designated components, when in fact there is an interpenetration of energy or consciousness on all levels. The early Gnostic taught that man must become aware of his divine origin and strive to bring his outer self into resonance with his inner. The successful one is the true hero of the mythic cycles.
Gnostic revelation involved a call that was a summons expressed through a "messenger from the world of Light," while the church viewed revelation as a disclosure from a divine source to be accepted without question or interpretation. The idea of a messenger from the realm of Light has interesting corollaries. In the old Persian (Iranian) form of Gnosticism, this messenger or savior is inwardly identical with the entities he calls — the lost portions of himself. For, like Padmapani in the Hindu tradition, and the Qabbalist Sephiroth whose "shattered" elements come together in a tikkun or "ingathering," he too has shared himself with all. This sounds like a high, spiritual initiation when an entity from a source beyond our ken sends a ray of itself into our realm, which is more material than its own; and also when the human ego descends into a system "below" our own.
The whole process of life-immersion into earthly experience succeeded by ingathering of the scattered divine essences culminates in perfection for that cycle that leads to a rest period, such as that called pralaya in India. This is not the end, however, for there is a later "outbreathing" of the divine essences, to manifest a new cosmos expressing more and more of its latent qualities that await their time to become actualities out of the potential.
There can be no end to the process in the infinite Universe of universes. We must seek within ourselves to find the divine element, not wander about looking only outside. The long search for this center of our being is the only way to travel toward the perfection of man. When the goal will be achieved, we shall probably find there are more peaks to ascend, for humankind is not the pinnacle of all existences, only a stage on the road.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)