THE BLOG
11/04/2014 08:57 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

The Knowledge Philosophy - Ancient and Modern

I'm excited. I've been studying first and second century AD philosophers, including Jesus and the Christian "Gnostics". The Gnostics placed the greatest value on knowledge - the hope for mankind and the possibility of salvation, they believed, came from understanding the nature of the universe; and the best place to start was with introspection and the psychology of the individual. It strikes me that this is the best possible modern philosophy - the one most likely to be true and useful - and that it's relevant to artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as to all of us as individuals.

And guess who appears to have been the best exponent of the "Knowledge Philosophy"? Well, with one big caveat (that I will come to later), I would award the prize in the ancient division (of ancient and modern) to Jesus of Nazareth - but not the one that the church has promoted for 19 centuries. The Jesus I speak of is the "Gnostic Jesus", the one revealed by the ancient but unofficial Gnostic Gospels discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.

I'm reading - again and again - one of the Gnostic Gospels, the one attributed to Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas was not written by Jesus' twin, any more than Jesus' original disciples wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Yet the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas may be earlier and more authentic than those in the familiar gospels.

What does this Unfamiliar Jesus say?

First, "we came from the light". Humans contain the divine spark, and came from heaven. But that spiritual self has been imprisoned in the material world, that of our bodies and all the things necessary for the support of the body. The world of light has no darkness, no division, no hatred, no anxiety, and no time constraint. The material world has all of these bad things, and our bodies will inevitably head downhill and die. The human condition is defined by the internal war between body and spirit, darkness and light, death and life.

When the world was created, mankind was riven between its true - spiritual - nature, and its incarnation in bodies, with all their imperfection and decay. Our sense of unity with the universe - the "one" that each of us was, our true spiritual nature - became "two", when body was added to spirit. Not only did this lead to alienation, but also to the probability that we forget that we are spiritual beings, and in the futile struggle to survive in the material world, we let our spiritual side shrivel and die.

Second, the way out of this impasse, out of divided nature, is to acquire knowledge of how things really stand, and in particular, knowledge of the self. In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus how to find the kingdom of heaven, when and where it will come. His answer is that the question itself is misconceived:

"If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you, and it is outside of you ... When you come to know yourselves, theyn you will become known, and you will realize it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and you are that poverty."

The kingdom is inside everyone who is aware of their inner self and lets it blossom.
If we do not come to know ourselves, if we do not come to know and nurture our spirit, we are destroying the valuable part of our nature - it withers and dies. But if we come to know ourselves, we are led into the mysteries of the universe, to the kingdom of heaven, to the verge of knowledge of God. As the Book of Thomas the Contender puts it:

"Whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but whoever has known himself has simultaneously achieved knowledge about the depth of all things."

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says something that seems to prefigure psychoanalysis:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Third, we acquire eternal life by developing the spirit. The body will surely die, but the spirit, if it is strong enough, will return to whence it came:

"Jesus said, two [the body and the spirit] will rest on a bed: the one [the body] will die, and the other [the spirit] will live."

The first caveat I mentioned earlier, however, is that there is a trade-off between developing our spiritual side and our material circumstances. In the most laconic of his comments in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells us to "Become passers-by" - to bypass the material world and its preoccupations. In the Gospel of Thomas, even more than in the church-approved ones, there is a strong streak of anti-materialism. It has always amazed me that most modern Christians, especially in the United States, manage to combine genuine devotion to "Jesus", with a total disregard of everything that he had to say about riches. This is very much a case of what the same Jesus might have called "let him who does not have ears to hear, block them up."

But hang on a minute.

There is a fourth theme in the Gospel of Thomas, and I think it is the link between the authentic Jesus on the one hand, and his followers or potential followers today in the arts, sciences, and business on the other hand.

The final theme is what Thomas' Jesus has to say about the development of knowledge:

Jesus said, "Whoever will drink from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him."

Unlike the later "Christian" church, Jesus does not pretend that he discovered everything, or that knowledge is revealed once and for all. Knowledge is something that each spiritual person can discover for themselves, and extend. Once the teaching of Jesus is internalized, it can be surpassed.

Thus, in a sense, the authority of the Church, and even of Jesus himself, is undermined, and the seeker after truth - the artist, the scholar, the scientist, the person of inspiration - can challenge and revise received wisdom.

Although often retarded by ecclesiastical authority, it is the genuine spirit of the truth-seeking Jesus, revealed by the Gospel of Thomas, which has led to all the advances in the arts and sciences of the Western world. The Jesus revealed by Thomas is above all a devotee of the ever-shifting and ever-expanding truth. Devotion to the truth is important; religious observances are not:

His disciples questioned him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?"

Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered."

Jesus said, "Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."

Conclusion

Devotion to the expansion of knowledge by the individual is inherently subversive. It corrodes authority, and rewrites the rules of life in the light of increased knowledge and experience.

If knowledge is valued above everything else, the artist, the scientist, and the entrepreneur will inevitably and necessarily overturn previous views and discover more about the universe and our role in it. The only way to discover more about reality is through thought experiments and practical experiments. In business this is through the formation of new ventures.

But knowledge at the most fundamental level is about who we are and how to understand that and deal with it. In this sense, I don't think anyone has improved much on the views of Jesus the philosopher, as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas.

We are strangers in a strange world, trying to come to terms with our divided selves and our alienation from each other and from the universe as a whole. The mystic, the spiritual person, and everyone in the long dark night of the soul, longs for a view of the universe as something unitary, something that we can bond with, and be at one with. I think the evidence is clear that we are not just material beings. We are seekers after knowledge, which itself is an excellent thing, practically but also morally. And the most vital thing in life, against all the distractions and attractions of the material world, is to develop our minds and our spirits. Therein lies the end of alienation, and quite possibly, the joyous survival and fusion of our spirit with ultimate and eternal reality.