Gnosis (from one of the Greek words for knowledge, γνώσις) is the spiritual knowledge of a saint or mystically enlightened human being. In the formation of early Christianity, various sectarian groups labelled "gnostics" by their opponents, emphasised special or secret spiritual knowledge as gnosis, over faith (pistis) in the teachings of the established community of Christians. These sectarians emphased that the most essential part of the process of salvation was this personal knowledge in contrast to faith in ecclesiastical authority. As such these break away groups were branded heretics by the fathers of the early church. The knowledge of these sectarian groups is contested by Eastern Orthodox Theology as religio-philosophical in nature rather then revelatory.

Spiritual knowledge or gnosis, as well as being discussed within the context of Early Christianity and Hellenistic culture (i.e. as Gnosticism), is also discussed within the context of other religious traditions such as Sufism of Islam and Theravada Buddhism. Gnosis is not exclusive to any sectarian group as the word is a Greek technical or dialectal term. Within the culture of the term, Byzantine and Hellenic cultures respectfully, gnosis was a special knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine, uncreated rather then insight into the finite natural or material world. Gnosis is a transcendent as well as mature understanding. It indicates direct spiritual experiential, knowledge rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Knowledge as in revelation and/or intuitive knowledge (see gnosiology).


Gnosis is a Greek word, originally used in specifically Platonic philosophical contexts. Plato, for example, uses the terms gnostikoi’ and gnostike episteme in the text called Politikos. The word means the knowledge to influence and control, Gnostike episteme also was used to indicate one's aptitude. The terms do not appear to indicate any mystic, esoteric or hidden meaning within the works of Plato but instead expressed a sort of higher intelligence and ability akin to talent. The term is used throughout Greek philosophy as a technical term for experience knowledge (see gnosiology) in contrast to theoretical knowledge which is akin to epistemology. The term is also related to the study of knowledge retainment or memory (also see cognition). In relation to ontic or ontological which is how something actually is.


The Gnostic Sects

Among the sectarian gnostics, gnosis was first and foremost a matter of self-knowledge which was considered the path leading to the goal of enlightenment. Through such self-knowledge and personal purification (virtuous living) the adept is led to direct knowledge of God. Later, Valentinius (Valentinus), taught that gnosis was the privileged Gnosis kardias "knowledge of the heart" or "insight" about the spiritual nature of the cosmos, that brought about salvation to the pneumatics— the name given to those believed to have reached the final goal of sanctity. Gnosis was distinct from the secret teachings revealed to initiates once they had reached a certain level of progression akin to arcanum. Rather, these teachings were paths to obtain gnosis. (See e.g. "fukasetsu", or ineffability, a quality of realization common to many, if not most, esoteric traditions; see also Jung on the difference between sign and symbol.) Gnosis from this perspective being very akin to the same meaning as the words occult and arcana.

Gnosis according to Hans Jonas

In his book, The Gnostic Religion, philosopher Hans Jonas gave an explanation of the meaning of gnosis as it was understood by the gnostic sects and what he considers its subtle difference from the Greek concept of theoria or contemplation.

'As for what the knowledge is about, the associations of the term most familiar to the classically trained reader point to rational objects, and accordingly to natural reason as the organ for acquiring and possessing knowledge. In the gnostic context, however, "knowledge" has an emphatically religious or supernatural meaning and refers to objects which we nowadays should call those of faith rather than of reason. Now although the relation of faith and knowledge (pistis and gnosis) became a major issue in the church between the gnostic heretics and the orthodox, this was not the modern issue between faith and reason with which we are familiar; for the "knowledge" of the Gnostics with which simple Christian faith was contrasted whether in praise or blame was not of the rational kind. Gnosis meant pre-eminently knowledge of God, and from what we have said about the radical transcendence of the deity [in gnosticism] it follows that "knowledge of God" is the knowledge of something naturally unknowable and therefore itself not a natural condition. Its objects include everything belonging to the divine realm of being, namely, the order and history of the upper worlds, and what is to issue from it, namely, the salvation of man. With objects of this kind, knowledge as a mental act is vastly different from the rational cognition of philosophy. On the one hand it is closely bound up with revelationary experience, so that reception of the truth either through sacred and secret lore or through inner illumination replaces rational argument and theory (though this extra-rational basis may then provide scope for independent speculation); on the other hand, being concerned with the secrets of salvation, "knowledge" is not just theoretical information about certain things but is itself, as a modification of the human condition, charged with performing a function in the bringing about of salvation. Thus gnostic "knowledge" has an eminently practical aspect. The ultimate object of gnosis is God: its event in the soul transforms the knower himself by making him a partaker in the divine existence (which means more than assimilating him to the divine essence). Thus in the more radical systems like the Valentinian the "knowledge" is not only an instrument of salvation but itself the very form in which the goal of salvation, i.e., ultimate perfection, is possessed. In these cases knowledge and the attainment of the known by the soul are claimed to coincide—the claim of all true mysticism. It is, to be sure, also the claim of the Greek theoria, but in a different sense. There the object of knowledge is the universal, and the cognitive relation is "optical," i.e., an analogue of the visual relation to objective form that remains unaffected by the relation. Gnostic "knowledge" is about the particular (for the transcendent deity is still a particular), and the relation of knowing is mutual, i.e., a being known at the same time, and involving active self-divulgence on the part of the "known." There, the mind is "informed" with the forms it beholds (thinks) them: here the subject is transformed (from "soul" to "spirit") by the union with a reality that in truth is itself the supreme subject in the situation and strictly speaking never an object at all.'

In gnosis, as Jonas here explains, the relation between the human person as subject and the transcendent deity (God) as object is mutual where one knows and yet is known at the same time. This form of non-dualistic (Skt:Advaita) knowledge of the deity is described in religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world (see below). The apostle Paul describes it in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come [God], then that which is in part shall be done away...For now we see distorted images as though in a mirror [For now we see through a glass darkly]; but then [we shall see] face to face: Now I know in part but then shall I know even as also I am known.'

Here Paul uses the optical metaphor with his description of the saint's knowledge of God.

Gnosis is therefore not a concept exclusive to Gnosticism but was certainly emphasised by the gnostic philosophers as the summum bonum of the religious life.

Gnosis according to Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin partially building on the concept of Gnosticism as defined by Hans Jonas, defined the Gnosis of the followers of Gnosticism as religious philosophical teachings that are the foundations of cults. Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism.

Voegelin identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation (from the works of Hans Jonas), that is, a sense of disconnection with society and a belief that this lack of concord with society is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. This alienation has two effects:

  • The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis).
  • The second is the desire to implement and or create a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin described it, to Immanentize the Eschaton, to create a sort of heaven on earth within history by triggering the apocalpyse.

The Gnostics and Early Christianity

During the early formation of Christianity as a coherent body of doctrine a considerable amount of energy was devoted to weeding out what were considered to be false doctrines. The gnostics held views which were incompatible with emerging Catholic Orthodoxy. Among Christian heresiologists, the concept of false gnosis was used to denote different Pagan, Jewish or Christian belief systems (i.e. the Glycon) and their various teachings of what was deemed religio-philosophical knowledge as opposed to authentic gnosis (see below, Gnosis among the Greek Fathers). First and foremost of these groups was Gnosticism and other dualist systems from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. These sectarian groups taught that the creator of the cosmos, referred to as demiurge (which is creator in Greek), was not the true God but a fallen being and even sometimes the personification of evil. This in specific was reference to the creator God of the Jewish old testament (Yahweh) and Hellenistic Pagan philosophy creator God (Zeus). The sectarians taught that the cosmic creator and ruler was a tyrant or despot some groups even accusing the creator of being Satan or evil. The cosmos that the "creator" had fashioned (see the Sethian and Ophite gnostic sects) was evil and or a prison. That the true God of these various sectarian groups was a purely spiritual God and did not fashion the material world. The followers of these various cults or sects were not called gnostics or followers of gnosticism per se, but were either named after the groups' various founders or the various religio-philosophical associations common at the time throughout the Mediterranean and Mideast. Gnosticism here not being a genuine belief system per se but more of a set of techniques (allegories or dialects) applied by the sects to counter established beliefs, held by the sectarians' respective targets. Syncretic in nature these sectarians through various exclusive associations sought to reconcile and or conform many of the Mediterranean and Mideastern religious traditions with their own religio-philosophical knowledge, or understanding. Much at the expense of the distinct qualities or uniqueness of each of their target traditions (see religious egalitarianism). Early Christian community leaders accused these multiple groups of fabricating various text (as a negative form of Declamatio), in order to undermine the teaching of the existing Christian community. Text fabricated to remove or counter aspects of the targeted communities' teachings that did not conform with the various sects pre-Christian religio-philosophical knowledge held by the sectarian groups. These techniques (dialects) were then countered by individuals of the targeted traditions such as Hebrew philosopher Philo of Alexandria (see minuth), the Christian Bishop Irenaeus (see On the Detection and Overthrow of False Gnosis) and later the Hellenic philosopher Plotinus (see Neoplatonism and gnosticism). These individuals, among others all condemned the actions, teachings and techniques (dialects) of these various groups as unethical, iniquitous and or amoral (see antinomianism).

Gnosis among the Greek Fathers

In early Christianity a positive use of the word gnosis also carried over from Hellenic philosophy into Greek Orthodoxy as a critical characteristic of asceticism, via St Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hegesippus, and Origen. Gnosis meaning intuitive knowledge, spiritual knowledge, heart knowledge (kardiognosis) or memory of an experience of God, as such it is not secret knowledge. Maturing knowledge derived from enstasis contemplation (theoria resulting from practise of hesychasm) , ecstasy, and the direct experience of God. In relation to theosis (deification/personal relationship with God) and theoria (vision of God). According to Greek Orthodox theology and biblical scripture Jesus proclaimed that he did not teach any secret or hidden knowledge (religio-philosophical knowledge). Early church tradition was that gnosis carried these meanings regardless of if the individual professing them was honest or not about their mystical experiences.

Hellenic philosophy

The Neoplatonic philosophers including, Plotinus rejected followers of gnosticism as being un-Hellenistic and anti- Plato due to their vilification of Plato's creator of the universe referred to as the demiurge. Plotinus also rejected the use of misotheism as an answer to the problem of evil. (see Neoplatonism and Gnosticism). Plotinus did express gnosis via theoria (as the truth) was the highest goal of the philosopher.


The term Gnosis is related to the Sanskrit jnana (as in Jnana Yoga) and to the Hebrew daath, which is the hidden sphere in the Kabbalah, or that knowledge which was only given to the initiated.

In the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, the Gnostic being refers to the future supramental state of divinised humanity, living a spirit-filled existence. He speaks of a Gnostic Community, a collective Gnostic life that will establishe a gnostic Supernature. Author Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet discusses the Gnostic being and the 'rise and establishment of a Gnostic society' in terms of the Supramental Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry.


Gnostic ideas of salvation were similar to Buddhist conceptions of jñāna and Bodhi. The former word is from similar Indo-European roots. In general, the realization of jñāna is the culmination of the process of the path, namely: moral discipline, concentration, knowledge and release as jñāna.

Etymological and Intercultural associations

The meaning of gnosis is well understood among the mystical traditions of the world religions and the term is used interchangeably with equivalent concepts in other mystical traditions. For example in Indian religions experiential knowledge of the unconditioned ground (Brahman - the Hindu concept of the Godhead) is called jnana (pronounced nyana). The term jnana (often spelt nyana or ñana) is also found in Buddhism.

The word gnosis is actually cognate (from Proto-Indo-European) with Sanskrit jnana. In Theravada Buddhism the word for gnosis is añña (lit. 'highest knowledge') which is again from the same root. Similarly, within the context of gnosticism, the word gnostic may refer to a follower of one of the gnostic sects or may be used as equivalent to the term pneumatic, that is to say one who has attained gnosis. Outside the context of gnosticism gnostic is often used in this latter sense. This is comparable to the term Jnani in Sanskrit and Hindi meaning one who has attained jnana. It is interesting to note in this context that in the Forest Sangha tradition of Ajahn Chah the word Buddha (technically meaning one who has awakened) is taught as meaning 'one who knows'.

Gnosis is synonymous with equivalent terms in other spiritual/mystical traditions. Examples include:

Influences on contemporary culture

  • Gnosis was the name of magazine, subtitled a "Journal of the Western Inner Traditions," published between 1985 and 1999 in California and covering traditions of spirituality and mysticism. It was a project of the Lumen Foundation.
  • Among certain modern occult movements, esp. chaos magic, gnosis refers to an altered state of awareness in which the will is "magickally" effective.
  • Philip K. Dick was very interested in gnosticism, and several of his novels deal with the subject. Perhaps most notable is his VALIS trilogy.
  • In the cult hit musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig's protege/lover/rival takes the stage name "Tommy Gnosis".
  • In the novel The Secret Magdalene by Ki Longfellow, the central theme is the experience of gnosis by Mary Magdalene and her companion a fictional version of Jesus Christ. It is also the central theme of her novel about Hypatia of Alexandria, now nearly completion.
  • The ghostly enemies of the Xenosaga series of videogames on the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS are known as The Gnosis.
  • The anti-virus protection program created by the Codemasters and used by the Guardians in Reboot is called Gnosis. Found only in the first web-comic by Rainmaker Entertainment.
  • Gnosis is a song by Ulver from their 1999 EP Metamorphosis
  • The Gnosis is also the name of a ship from the city Zion in the movie The Matrix Reloaded.

See also


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