The term “disease” is today used exclusively to refer to a medical condition, specifically an absence of correct or healthy function. The root word “dis” originally connoted absence or lack, with a further meaning connoting bad, ill, or unfortunate, perhaps in a more metaphorical sense. Thus, for example, “disaster” was not a missing star, literally, but a bad star, an ill omen, a foreboding and prophetic moment.
In the broadest sense, collective thought has historically always feared, or awaited, disaster, always suspected the presence of a bad star. A strong sense of dis-ease has always haunted human efforts, especially social, cultural, and organizational ones. Perhaps this sense is evolutionary, as when primitive men (specifically men, versus women) pursued the hunt, courting the danger of injury or death, while restlessly passing night in woodland copses or hovels, fearful of the night sky, a turn in weather, the sudden appearance of one of the large creatures it hunted during the day. Add to this evolving stories or reports of spirits and malevolent natural phenomena and “dis-ease” was endemic. The dis-ease may have originated in guilt over their work or how they might have treated one of their clan, or in quiet moments a consciousness of frailty before a complex universe, as the experience of injury, sickness, and death became familiar. One may speculate that dis-ease has always been a component of human existence.
Even without a study of primitive anthropology, Freud came to call this “dis-ease” malaise, and to see it rooted in the tenuous status of human beings in their relationships to one another, and to nature and nature’s inevitabilities. While he saw religion as a displacement for psychological conditions, a history of religious thought does demonstrate the perennial attempt to unravel “dis-ease.”
Thinking in terms of culture one might assume “dis-ease” to be a strictly modern affliction, the doubt, restlessness, and anxiety characterizing contemporary life and philosophy. Contrast the Stoicism of antiquity, which Frank MacLynn (biographer of Marcus Aurelius) describes as entirely based on the classical assumption of Platonic and Aristotelian thought of an ordered and meaningful universe governed by God and ethics. Even the other philosophies of antiquity were not dissimilar. Epicureanism, with its emphasis on aesthetics, and the gentle materialism of Lucretius, were also built on pantheism and saw ethics as the only universal to which to cling. These philosophies understood the need to assuage the heart and spirit against dis-ease. In that sense, they shared the temperament of the contemporary East.
The mystery religions of antiquity contrasted to the temperament of the philosophers, but nevertheless did not contradict the desire to understand nature and find a resolution to dis-ease. They did, however, not assume that the God of logic was the true God or a single source of divinity. Their emphasis on bypassing reason and logic in favor of a subjective method of appropriating knowledge offered an alternative to the non-philosopher masses. A similar historical parallel is to be found in the Western scriptural religions of the era: Judaism and Christianity.
What limited the impact of Judaism outside of its immediate adherents was its sense of exclusivity and the peculiar nature of its notion of God, which relied heavily on a myth-making narrative and a narrow set of commandments and rituals. Judaism offered no individual path like the mystery religions, and no philosophical paths until later contact with Greek sources. Christianity suffered the immediate conflict of internal dissension, between the Eastern-style teachings of Jesus, and the institutional and ritualizing forces of Judaism. The victory went to the latter, and the sayings tradition was deliberately mingled with diluting and mythologizing elements of use to the institutionalists. Thus, no rigorous philosophical school emerged — unless the theologians count — and the insights of a mystery religion took on ritualized formulas more heavily Judaic than Greek.
Of special note in this era, therefore, is Gnosticism, which challenges both the institutional Judaic element in Christianity as well as the exclusivity of Christianity’s dependence on scriptural authority complementing the institutional. The Gnostics return to the fundamental dis-ease that should be addressed: the universality of pain and suffering. Some Gnostics went so far as to overthrow the biblical creation narrative and argue that the true God is entirely spiritual and did not create the world, that the world was created by an evil archon/pretender who contrived a flawed creation full of death and suffering.
Modern sholars, effectively maintaining the vital questions of the historical Gnostics, were concerned to rescue the original sayings and parables of Jesus against the interpolations of the orthodox Christians tussling for power as priests, bishops, and authorities, with useful narratives of the passion and resurrection suiting their succession narrative. The impact of the original sayings (as the Q Gospel) and especially of the Gnostic and other sectarian documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is specific to twentieth century spirituality, and complements the grand intellectual effort of the era to address dis-ease. For it is not the dis-ease only of contemporary life but even of the foundations of the civilization, for better or worse.
But gnosis as a method is common to all spiritual traditions. Judaism eventually developed a school of mysticism to transcend the aridness of Scripture anthropomorphism. The Christian mystics of Western Europe, especially Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, exemplify the notion of discerning the divine outside of the canon of authorized documents, dry and lifeless.
In Islam, Sufism was essentially a gnostic methodology, entirely original within the Muslim tradition but paralleling the mysticism of its predecessor religions in the West. In modern times, theosophists have been instrumental in popularizing elements of Western gnostic traditions and melding them with Eastern thought, and while frequently vague and naive, their historical efforts to explore Eastern documents and traditions has represented an effort to address modern “dis-ease.” The popularity of Eastern thought, then brought to the West as New Thought and New Age, plus keen Western interest in depth psychology and Hindu and Buddhist traditions have all highlighted the gnostic search for meaning that is not dependent on authority, reason, or cultural exclusivity but on the efforts of spiritually-minded individuals.