“Wipe your glosses with what you know” – Finnegans Wake
What is gnosis, and what does it have to do with Thelema?
The word “gnosis” literally means “knowledge” in Greek, and it’s usually used to refer to spiritual knowledge or knowledge of an esoteric nature. Occultists seem to use the word in various ways, ranging from certain trance states (“I intone a mantra to generate gnosis before I begin the ritual”) to daft poetry (“What’s that? Your magical order doesn’t produce laughable poetry? Ha! Looks like you guys have no new gnosis!”) to certainty about spiritual claims (“I know that reincarnation is true because I have acquired gnosis!”).
One way that some kinds of supernaturalists often use the word is to contrast their beliefs with those of other religionists. The argument they make goes something like this: “Most religious people – like those Christians! – just have a bunch of beliefs that the priests tell them and that they are expected to believe. So they take it on faith. Bleh! But we superior supernaturalists don’t take our ideas on faith – we know. You see, we get into our trance states and achieve gnosis. We don’t just believe that we have had past lives. We experience past life memories, and we therefore have direct knowledge that reincarnation is true. No belief required! We have knowledge!”
Unfortunately for these supernaturalists, they are incorrect.
Read on for a discussion of knowledge, belief, and gnosis in the context of Thelema.
First, some definitions. Different people tend to use language differently, so it’s important that we define our terms upfront.
Here’s how I use the following words:
The word “belief” designates the acceptance of a proposition as likely to be true. One accepts propositions as likely to be true as a result of being convinced. In this context, “belief” is passive, not active: one cannot choose to believe something. One can merely be convinced that it’s likely to be true. One can be convinced for good reasons or for bad reasons. There exist relatively objective standards that can be used to determine whether the reasons for holding a particular belief are good or bad.
The word “knowledge” designates a subset of belief: it refers to those beliefs that one thinks are very, very, very likely to be true. The threshold of likelihood at which an individual will start to label beliefs as “knowledge” will vary from person to person. The important point here is that “knowledge” – like “belief” – does not designate certainty.
Under my definitions, I say that I “believe” claims that I have been convinced are likely to be true, and I say that I “know” claims that I have been convinced are very likely to be true. Both claims of belief and knowledge are tentative, subject to doubt and to revision when new evidence becomes available.
I suspect it is highly unlikely that absolute “certainty” exists, in any form. See my article on The Soldier and the Hunchback for more details.
What, then, does “gnosis” denote? I would argue that the best usage of the word in the context of Thelema is to designate “knowledge” in the sense of direct experience, which is distinct from the common sense of “knowledge” as I define it above. Here, gnosis means “knowledge” in the sense of knowing what it’s like to eat sushi, knowing what it’s like to perform the LBRP, knowing one’s wife, and –perhaps most importantly – knowing what it’s like to perceive reality (including the Self) as free as possible from the distorting influences of the mind.
This direct “knowledge” of Self is the gnosis promised by Thelema, and it is not – repeat: not – a factual claim about the world but a direct experience that issues forth into action. One’s Will is what one does when one is not paying attention to the phantoms created by the mind. By obtaining gnosis of the Will – which is not “belief” or “knowledge” as I defined the terms above – one performs the True Will.
Importantly, this “gnosis” does not serve as the basis for any factual claims about the world and does not devalue the world that our senses reveal to us. “Gnosis” is not the perception of some “other world” or some “absolute.” Gnosis, in Thelema, is the direct experience of reality, the direct experience of that which our mental processes normally veil from us. The most that one can claim about it is that it’s there.
The people who think they have “gnosis” that informs them of the truth of supernatural claims are not only not right…they’re not aware of how their own rational minds are misleading them.