a synthesis by Irina Airinei Vasile, Ph.D.
Hans Jonas (1903-1993), philosopher, historian of religions, a Heideggerian interested in gnosticism and bioethics, is less well-known in Eastern Europe (for example, nothing of his work has ever been translated in Romanian). In America, however, through the volume “The Phenomenon of Life” (1966), he succeeded in influencing figures such as Murray Bookchin, an ecologist anarchist, or Leon Richard Kass, a well-known bioethics physician. In the volume of 1958, “The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity,” a volume with a strong impact especially in England, Jonas describes Gnosticism from an existentialist perspective, renounced in large part.
In 1985, besides volumes like “Psyhanodia” or “Experiences of Ecstasy”, Ioan Petru Culianu proposes another study on gnosticism, a study also with strong critical accents. The title, “Gnosticism and Modern Thinking: Hans Jonas” (also appeared in Romania at Polirom Publishing House, Iasi, 2006), suggests a monograph.
It is, indeed, a monograph, but on the other hand, as the author himself acknowledges, the volume concretises an old project, dating back to 1973, a project that has acquired a first form in the 1975 BA thesis at Università Catolica “del Sacro Cuore” in Milan. “Gnosticism and Modern Thinking: Hans Jonas” is both “a quick presentation of the phenomenon and the history of studies about Gnosticism,” Culianu says, as well as “a succinct but at the same time as comprehensive as possible of Jonas’s work and his role in the modern historiography of Gnosticism and in the history of ideas in general.” Hans Jonas represents both ”a rapid presentation of the phenomenon and a history of studies on Gnosticism “, and ” but at the same time of Hans Jonas’s work and of the role he played in modern historiography of Gnosticism and in the history of ideas in general “. Basically, in this volume, Ioan Petru Culianu criticizes the Heideggerian existentialism from whose positions Jonas analyzes Gnosticism.
Professor Culianu was adored by students and admired by scholars from Umberto Eco to Harold Bloom. Fluent in eight languages, the author of seventeen books, and the holder of three Ph.D.’s, Culianu was “brilliant, famous in Europe,” says Dr. Moshe Idel, a Hebrew University professor and expert on Jewish mysticism. Tall, with a dimpled smile and deep eyes that looked somewhere beyond you, Ioan Culianu proposed that multiple universes coexist, that the mind creates reality, and that magic can outperform modern science.
It does not, therefore, surprise that I.P. Culianu, in his volume ”Gnosticismo e pensiero moderno: Hans Jonas, Roma, L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1985” criticizes whenever Heidegger’s perspective is offered, although he acknowledges his merits: “In a sense, the intervention of Hans Jonas – this philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s disciple – has caused an overthrow in studies devoted to Gnosticism: for the first time, the reader was called upon to identify with the existential situation of the Gnostic, and to realize that the problems debated at that distant epoch of our civilization were not alien to those of modern man. ” In the modern world, Jonas thinks, Gnostic thought and feeling have not disappeared. On the contrary, they have proliferated. In the interview given to Culianu, he acknowledges that it is more of a “spirit of time”, of a kind of contextual pessimism. The two world wars, the economic crisis, favored this kind of attitude. “I think something in Europe was about Gnosticism: the apocalyptic and nihilist situation,” admits Jonas.
From the reflections of his study we find out that: “Gnosis und spätantiker Geist,” the volume of 1934, despite weak critical echoes, became, as Karl Jaspers later told Jonas, “a major factor in the secret life of German intelligentsia during the war.” Gilles Quispel, in his turn, admitted that in the occupied Netherlands the book had many readers. Hans Jonas was thus entitled to say, “I think we have touched the sensitive nerve of an era.” But modestly, he does not absolutise his merits: “This does not mean – and I have to emphasize it – that the interpretation I gave to Gnosticism was correct: it only matched the mood caused by the historical circumstances …” What was new to Gnosticism in the context of its time, and how does it relate to the inter-war and even post-war periods? Plato, a philosopher with a major influence in the late antiquity, despite his doctrine of “the fall of the soul,” recognizes the necessity of the existence of this world in the perfection of the whole. In Plotin, as in Plato, the attitude of respect for the cosmos, perceived as harmonious, divinized, is evident. Gnosticism, on the other hand, proposes a pessimistic view of the world, replaces the vision of a divinized cosmos with a demonic one, created by the evil archons, creating a fear of this world. Culianu, in the footsteps of Jonas, describes this phenomenon: “The transformation consists in the fact that the soul itself is no longer in opposition to the materiality of the body, but enters the structure of the shadowy cosmos, is demonized, subjected to evil forces. Liberation lies in self-denial as a psychic existence, the denial of the cosmos at the same time, which leads to the retrieval of the hidden spark of the unknown God. ”
It is understandable, therefore, why at the beginning of the twentieth century there was an empathy towards such a way of perceiving the world. Even after the Second World War things did not change. In the same note, communism, in its demonic essence, can be seen as a construct crafted by evil archons. The Communist world was a demonic world, and escape was the main concern of those captured in this evil assault. I.P. Culianu admits that the theme of Gnosticism imposed itself because he came from such a world led by some evil archons. More about himself and the times he was formed, Hans Jonas will reveal in the two interviews given to Joan Petru Culianu in 1975 and 1980 respectively. A small bracket: though critical of the phenomenological method by which Jonas understood referring to Gnosticism, the young Culianu, who had begun studying Hans Jonas’s works since 1975 at the instigation of Ugo Bianchi, was influenced in his youthful texts, many of which appeared in the volume “Iter in Silvis: Saggi scelti sulla gnosi e altri studi “(1981), this technique of approaching Heideggerianism to Gnosticism. Because almost nothing is known about the German philosopher in the Romanian space, I will use the information given in Culianu’s interview with a brief biography. The approach, therefore, does not seem to me to be useless, especially since Jonas’ relationship with Heidegger is as discussed as the relationship between Culianu and Eliade. In the 1975 interview, Hans Jonas tells how he became a Heideggerian, but also how he later distanced himself from his master without completely abandoning the Heideggerian existentialist style depicted in his youth. In 1924, student Hans Jonas, after studying Freiburg’s philosophy for two semesters with Husserl, moved to Marburg where he and Heidegger would be a professor. “My generation,” confesses Jonas, “prefers young Heidegger to elder Husserl.” There he meets Hannah Arendt. At Marburg, at a seminar of the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, Jonas presents an extensive essay on gnosis, an essay that represented his beginnings in the study of Gnosticism. In 1927, Heidegger advised Bultmann to publish a work by Jonas, “Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem. Eine philosophische Study zum pelagianischen Streit” (Göttingen, 1930), and in 1928, Jonas presented his dissertation,” Der Begriff der Gnosis – The Concept of Gnosis “, then included thirty years later in the first part of the second volume from “Gnosis und spätantiker Geist” (1954).
Philosopher of Gnosticism, as he himself defined, but also a philosopher of science, an incomplete pessimist who still believed in the possibility of the human being to make a good destiny, by respect and modesty for everything that surrounds it, Hans Jonas was a modest man himself, and his line of direct followers is, in turn, a modest one (it can be said that from the school of Jonas of the history of religions was Culianu at the beginning of the eighties of the last century) . However, his themes, especially those related to man’s destiny in a fully-technologicalized world, are current, stringent. What had in common with I.P. Culianu, his discussion partner in 1975 and 1980? Excluding Gnosticism, probably few. First of all, the Heideggerian existentialist mode of questioning gnosticism, although it first inspired Culianu in his youthful texts, was at one time abandoned by Jonas. Therefore, the method could be considered dated at the time Culianu began studying Gnosticism. Secondly, Culianu’s systemic vision of structuralist influence explains the morphology of the religious phenomenon (and not only) in a way that could be considered mechanically, as cognition functions according to a particular pattern. Even it can be (and is) scheduled. In other words, the human brain is a machine, but a more special machine. There, in the human brain, is placed the cognitive environment, an ideal world, in which there are all forms of manifestation of any phenomenon in this world, whether historical, religious, social or economic. Hans Jonas would probably have missed such a vision. Reason, the German philosopher said, is not everything!
I.P. Culianu enumerates the merits of Hans Jonas in the conclusions of his monograph: “By his phenomenological-existential approach, Hans Jonas gave ancient gnosticism an intelligibility and prestige equal to those of modern phenomena such as existentialism. His research, despite their inevitable historical boundaries, has been revealed to be fundamental to an essential understanding and definition of Gnosticism. Moreover, they have allowed to project a new light – which is yet to be deepened – on modern Western thinking. ” Although it had some influence on I.P. Culianu, the master of the latter during the Italian period was Ugo Bianchi, under whose leadership he elaborated the monograph dedicated to Jonas. As Eduard Iricinschi remarks, unlike his relationship with Eliade, “the relationship between Bianchi and Culianu was relatively” normal “. Hans Jonas, using the Heideggerian concepts, gave a new impetus to the study of Gnosticism. But on the other hand, as the same Eduard Iricisnchi sees in his post in the monograph dedicated to Jonas, there was a risk “represented by the formation of the paradigm of study of Gnosticism over the last fifty years in the interwar critique of modernity and cosmopolitanism , as well as that of German nationalism, infiltrated by Being and Time, the fundamental opium of Martin Heidegger. ” Prudently, Culianu avoided this risk and, “in a” de-heideggerization “movement of Hans Jonas’ position, he described the Gnostic as a self-contained religion, thus remaining in Bianchi’s research orbit, but trying to improve it with the distinction and elegance of a heretic as curious, so discreet. ”
Not this time, I.P. Culianu did not fall into the “sin” of admiration, helped by his fine criticism. Though he did not reject anything Eliade, Jonas, or Bianchi, Culianu managed to keep away from his own vision, a time-consuming vision that has stirred up a lot of controversy and objections. Since the early 1980s, systemic reporting of the religious phenomenon, largely inspired by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, will be felt in Culianu’s texts. Hans Jonas, largely due to the cultural context of the early twentieth century, chose Heideggerian philosophy as a way of explaining the Gnostic phenomenon.
Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazi party, whom he supported during his reign as rector in the University of Freiburg – an event that, Jonas confessed, “was a disaster for philosophy itself, for the cause of philosophy in the world” – was undoubtedly the most controversial episode of the biography of the German philosopher. The gesture cost him the friendship and appreciation of many philosophers and scholars, including Jaspers and Bultmann. Neither has Hans Jonas forgiven him for this compromise and especially for the refusal to publicly acknowledge the error.
At the second Hermeneutical Conference at Drew University in Madison in 1964, a conference on “Heidegger and theology”, Jonas, in the opening speech, taking advantage of the opportunity, spoke directly about this episode of the biography of Heidegger. The effect was as good as the lecture paper on the front page of the well-known New York Times. Unexpectedly, Jonas was invited to a tour of Germany with this conference, which upset Heidegger, who complained that his “former student is attacking German universities” and that “no one is defending him”. However, Hans Jonas decides, when Heidegger turns eighty, to write a few lines to his former magistrate: “Although a letter from me can not count on a too friendly reception on your part, and all that interposed between us can not and must not be forgotten by me, yet it remains a fact – you were my decisive teacher and you never ceased to be a source of philosophical inspiration for me. Therefore, from the point of view of mortality (Eingedenk der Sterblichkeit), I wonder if you would like to allow me to meet once again, with the man who, in training as well as in pain, is still profoundly present in my life. If I do not get an answer, that in itself will be an answer with which I will have to reconcile myself. ” Heidegger responded to Jonas’ letter and the two met, but the subject of their discussion did not include the “neuralgic subject which, if brought up by Heidegger, would have meant most for me”. The Jonas-Heidegger relationship is, in my view, representative of what happened between Culianu and Eliade, with the only mention that Hans Jonas was directly affected by Heidegger’s choice, while I.P. Culianu had a post-factum attitude towards Mircea Eliade’s legionary past, a past that Eliade wanted – something hard to challenge – well camouflaged. Of course, that does not change anything, and Culianu’s attitude is, at least in part, justified.