The supremely triumphant effort of Irenaeus to stamp out Gnosticism, back in the second century—in his Against Heresies—displays a politically motivated, this-worldly stance that has been characteristic of Western Christianity ever since. Elaine Pagels has observed that, unlike Islam, Judaism, Coptic Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Western Christianity lacks an esoteric branch or a generally recognized mystical tradition. This lamentable lack or gap within Christendom is due in large part, of course, to the relentless campaign of the Church Fathers (and their heirs up to the present day) to sniff out and eradicate all forms of imaginative or spiritually innovative alternatives to canonical dogma. Such alternatives, when they would arise, were categorically regarded as heresy and they were often punishable by excommunication or burning at the stake.
The Gnostics, in contrast to orthodox Christianity, were startlingly original, radically imaginative, deeply suspicious of ‘natural man,’ and thoroughly antinomian. They were a big, bracing breath (pneuma) of fresh, chilly air. In attaching a generally negative value to mundane affairs, to physical nature, to the ‘official’ God of this (sensually apprehensible) world, and to merely literal words and dogmatic concepts, the Gnostics posed a potentially subversive threat to the Church as a political and doctrinal institution. Perhaps if the Gnostics had been left alone, they would have fizzled out on their own—or perhaps they would have found a way to maintain their unorthodox values and perspectives while shielding themselves from persecution and misunderstanding by the worldly Church (as the Sufis have found a haven as a kind of esoteric branch of Islam).
Plato—according to Leo Strauss and Laurence Lampert—attempted to devise and to establish such a haven for philosophers. If Strauss was right, Plato employed his writings as a means of making philosophy tolerable to ‘the city’ and attractive to that select few who are potential candidates for the life of philosophical enquiry. (By ‘the city’ we mean ordinary society with its typically power-driven, conventionally religious, acquisitive, anti-philosophical tendencies). Plato’s marvelous writings did not aim so much to turn the reader into a philosopher, although they strove to pique his/her interest in philosophy as a way of life—as embodied in the career of Socrates, the fascinating central figure in most of Plato’s dialogues. It seems that one is born a potential gnostic or potential philosopher, or one is not—just as one is born a great poet or composer, or one is not. In order to actualize these potentials—which, again, do not seem to be conspicuously present in the majority of human beings, now or ever—a special form of education by a special kind of teacher seems to be required. In the course of becoming a gnostic, a genuine philosopher, a mystic, or a visionary, it is fair to say that the world (as we first come to know it and as it is presented to us by our parents, teachers, and peers) is turned inside out.
In order to survive this inversion of values and established norms—and avoid going insane or becoming swallowed up once and for all by an inescapable tar pit of pessimism and hopelessness—the candidate for initiation must be exceptionally strong (spiritually), exceptionally humble (in terms of personal ego desires and ambitions), and exceptionally imaginative/subtle (in terms of soul). Moreover, without an exceptional degree of compassion (for all beleaguered parties in the wars for domination that typify life among humans), there is a real danger that the initiate will have his insides eaten out by anger and his will snuffed out by exasperation. Such poise and compassion can be achieved and sustained only by the practice of detachment and cultivated neutrality towards the various contending forces and groups. Injustice—when it is recognized—excites anger in the breast of the ‘good’ man or woman. Where it is unacknowledged, there is apathy, confusion, and (oftentimes) unconscious complicity with the agents of injustice. The initiate understands that the only way injustice can be eliminated from human affairs is through a transformation of human consciousness—and this is not likely to happen on a grand scale anytime soon. It happens, when it does, one person at a time.
In having experienced the world being ‘turned inside out,’ however, the initiate’s psychological bearings have undergone a stunning reorientation. As a consequence of this stupendous inversion, a significant part of the initiate’s personality has, in effect, ‘died’ to the world. The ‘old,’ inverted or subverted world seems no longer to exert its formerly invincible spell. The initiate has partially seen through that world into the core behind its mask. What this means, psychologically, is that he has recognized that the value and meaning normally attributed to events, persons, objects, and public ideas is unconsciously projected by men and women everywhere and at all times. Because it is understood that it is the unconscious process of projection that underlies (and underwrites) the value and meaning that appear ‘out there’ in the world, it is also simultaneously understood that by getting control over our projections, we loosen the world’s sticky grip upon us.
Let’s begin with a rather obvious example of projection. If we learn that the chief reason an acquaintance of ours is averse to a particular political figure—or to an entire nation, for that matter—is because he is projecting prejudices and falsehoods that have been deliberately served up to him by the news media, then we are in a position to raise important questions about ‘orchestrated’ projections with him. We may, for example, begin to ask questions like ‘Is the media presenting a fair and comprehensive picture of the politician or nation, or is it distorted in a big way?’ ‘Who owns and controls the media and why might these interested parties want you and me and millions of others to dislike the political figure or this foreign nation?’ This is just an elementary example—one that most intelligent and/or honest persons can immediately appreciate—but there are far subtler and, therefore, far more powerfully determining prejudices and valuations that we unconsciously project into ‘the world’ with its entire cast of characters and contents.
The initiate has learned that the only truly effective way to make these projections conscious is by momentarily interrupting the process of projection itself—and stepping back from these projected values and half-baked ideas to the extent that he can. The effect of this sort of reflection—of arresting our projected assumptions and valuations and subjecting them to careful analysis—is precisely what enables us to ‘turn the world inside out.’ What we are doing, of course, is learning about the subtle and generally unconscious process by which the world—any ‘world’—is generated and kept more or less intact by the simultaneous, interrelated projections of all our fellow humans.
The quest for spiritual freedom is fundamentally bound up with the problems of projection. If we would be free, we must first make conscious our projections, for it is these projections that—taken all together—provide structure and the specific contents or furniture of our world. Into this structure and into these contents our psychic and physical energy is pumped as gasoline is pumped into the tank of our automobile—gasoline that fuels the combustion that drives the motor, propelling us down the road. And it goes without saying that unless and until we make a projection conscious, we are in no position to manage it (to raise serious questions about its right to be part of our ‘world-forming’—and ‘world in-forming’—internal apparatus) or to dismantle it. As soon as we begin to realize that the outer events, implements, possessions, and persons depend pretty much entirely upon this projected value and meaning for their perceived significance to us (though not their existence), then it is a short step to the rather sweeping realization that the ‘world’ itself as a meaningful cosmos—which is made up of the totality of these unconscious projections—‘hangs upon the slender thread of the human psyche,’ as Jung put it in one of his grimmer moments.
Now, we eventually come to see that spiritual release or liberation really consists in release from thralldom to limited versions of ‘the world’ as it has been constituted by these unconscious projections. There is, then, no authentic liberation from these limited notions of reality so long as we believe in the independent, self-standing reality of that world—i.e., that our psyches make no essential contribution to world-making. We must first recognize the dependency of the world upon the psyche—not our personal psyches, but the psyche as a whole, of which the personal unconscious is but a tiny segment. All efforts, therefore, to ‘fix’ our spiritual dilemma by trying to modify concrete conditions and circumstances in the outer world are, from one angle, misguided—backwards—since they are founded upon the erroneous assumption that our imprisonment and the way of our release are essentially to be found in the world.
Dozens of times I have employed this analogy (traceable, of course, back to Plato’s peerless allegory of the cave, found in Bk.VII of the Republic) of ordinary human affairs and doings as an elaborate, ongoing stage play. The initiate who suffers this momentous about-face breaks free—more or less completely—from his identification with various roles upon that stage. He dis-identifies with his stage personality—simultaneously acquiring the capacity to see through the masks and the scripted roles of everyone around him. The shock and disorientation occasioned by this revelatory psychic experience can mean little or nothing to those who have not experienced this fateful unmasking, for what it reveals is the enormous—nay, the incalculable—extent to which all of us are slaves to the stage, unconscious conscripts in a generally tragic (or farcical, or trivial, or absurd, or what have you!) drama that only a tiny minority of us ever truly and completely see through, let alone, escape from. And, as I have also observed many times before, the initial reward experienced by the newly liberated initiate is an utter and seemingly irremediable sense of his aloneness in having stepped of that stage! For let it be clear: it is not as if, in stepping off the accursed stage of blinkered sleepwalkers mouthing their unoriginal lines and pursuing their pre-plotted courses, he is suddenly welcomed and embraced by throngs of former escapees waiting just offstage—waiting to celebrate his anomalous and semi-miraculous success in breaking the almost invincible spell of ‘the world.’
In fact, if there is any celebrating at all, it occurs within the privacy of his own breast. He may be warmed by the sense of kinship he feels with that select number of (mostly) long-dead unveilers of the secret that always remains hidden from mere believers. I mean, of course, believers in the pageantry and pomp of the world as it presents itself. Men as different as the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Valentinus, and Jung all speak as one in their warning against believing in the world as it is predigested and pre-interpreted for us by our early environment. All of them were outstanding un-believers, mis-trusters, and reflective deconstructors of the dominant projections that held up the inflated bubble-worlds into which they were born.