If the only alternative to Gnosticism is Stoicism—if the intellect of man is forced to choose the wild outward spirit or the stern inward soul—then we have made no philosophical advance since the days of the Roman Empire and the closing of the ancient mind. It is now as it was then: Valentinus stands at one door, smiling, while Seneca, stands at the other door, frowning, and the dim cave of human falsity offers no other exits.
To be clear, this is from a review of John Gray’s latest book, so there’s a little metaphorical liberty being taken with the terms. Gnosticism in this context means the hopeful belief that human knowledge and technology can deliver us from the many ills and tragedies that plague our existence. Gray’s provocative argument is that the same impulse to transcend this vale of tears that motivated the original Gnostics still drives human endeavor today, especially when it comes to science (for example, the trendy idea that scientific advancement will “cure” aging and death). Humans will never stop trying to become gods, in conscious control of every element of existence, leaving nothing to chance, even as the increasing complexity of the world we’ve created produces increasingly complex dilemmas to keep pace with it. The “Stoic” looks on with a wry smirk, convinced of the stronger likelihood that we will die trying instead, that there will always be variables that defy our prediction and understanding. The mystically-inclined might name the sum total of those elusive variables “God” and take comfort from that. Bottum would prefer to steer us toward the consolations of Christianity as a third alternative to the contrast he finds so depressing. I can’t share the faith of either party, so I would agree: this is the ur-argument when it comes to human society, the perennial condition in which we find ourselves. Gnostics vs. Stoics; progressives vs. conservatives; changing what we can, accepting what we can’t, and never quite wise enough to tell the difference.