The ‘cosmos’ in Gnostic thought  (copy of letter)


‘Whoever has known the world has found a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse, of him the world is not worthy.’   (The Gospel according to Thomas, p. 31, saying 56)


I put this on the end of a letter to you with the implication that ‘the world’ might correspond to human society, but I have noticed that it never produces problems to take ‘cosmos’ as meaning ‘the physical universe’ throughout Thomas, and it at least one place this seems to be necessary. 


However, the Greeks did not make so hard and fast a distinction between physical and social reality, and that is not really surprising, as physical science, with its appearance of mathematical objectivity, was much less developed at that time. 


Hans Jonas has a chapter on the cosmos in Greek and Gnostic evaluation, but you certainly cannot rely on words being used very accurately in any of the early Gospels, even the Gnostic ones.  Cosmos apparently has the specific attribute of order in contrast to the neutral fact of all-that-is, signified by the term ‘the All’.  The word ‘cosmos’ seems to have had distinctly evaluative implications, including moral and aesthetic ones. 


And, after some fashion, the order of the universe was supposed to bestow significance upon human society.  Jonas quotes a passage from Cicero which, Jonas says, ‘establishes the connection between cosmology and ethics, between the apotheosis of the universe and the ideal of human perfection … No more telling contrast to the gnostic attitude can be imagined.’  (The Gnostic Religion, page 245).  Jonas really disapproves of the Gnostic sense of alienation from the existential situation in which he finds himself.  ‘We can imagine with what feeling gnostic men must have looked up to the starry sky.  How evil its brilliance must have looked to them, how alarming its vastness and the rigid immutability of its courses, how cruel its muteness!  The music of the spheres was no longer heard, and the admiration of the perfect spherical form gave place to the terror of so much perfection directed at the enslavement of man.  The pious wonderment with which earlier man had looked up to the higher regions of the universe became a feeling of oppression by the iron vault which keeps man exiled from his home beyond.’  (Ibid., p. 261.) 


The Greeks seem to have made the cosmos into something like modern physiologically determined collectivised society, something from which one should not feel alienated but with which one should live in harmony.  ‘Stoic pantheism … substituted for the relationship between citizen and city that between the individual and the cosmos, the larger living whole.  to be a citizen of the universe, a cosmopolites, was now considered to be the goal by which otherwise isolated man could set his course.  He was asked, as it were, to adopt the cause of the universe as his own, that is, to identify himself with that cause directly, across all intermediaries, and to relate his inner self, his logos, to the logos of the whole.’  (Ibid., p. 248.)