Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism. The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The argument did not propose that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis.
The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms. It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted. After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.
What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later. Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century.
I. It would not be surprising if the manifestos of an anticosmic religious movement exhibited an obsession with cosmology, as the Gnostic texts emphatically do, for such is the nature of mimetic antipathy. This fact is significant in that an observable trend in mythic narrative – beginning say with Enuma Elish, the Babylonian “Creation,” or Hesiod’s Theogony and ending say with Genesis – is gradually to elide and finally almost entirely eliminate the many prehuman phases of creation, while concentrating on anthropogenesis and its sequels almost exclusively. One might hazard the thesis, even, that when myth relinquishes its engagement with the details of physical creation and begins to focus on anthropology – hence also on ethics and other things specifically human – it ceases to be myth and rises to the level of real religion in the higher, reflective sense. Otherwise it remains myth. Thus Enuma Elish devotes nine tenths of its eight hundred or so lines to recounting how determinate nature acquired its form through the archetypal combat of Marduk, a male principle and hero of the second divine generation, with Tiamat, a female principle of the first divine generation; and how, on slaying Tiamat, Marduk used her dismembered body to establish the structure of familiar existence. Man, called Adapa or Adama, does not appear in the narrative until the seventh tablet, but then only as a wretched temple-servant of Marduk and the younger gods.
In Genesis, by contrast, the business of physical creation demands only a few lines. The author obviously considers the details of physical creation relatively unimportant; the basic gestures are all that he finds necessary to record. Ninety-nine per cent of Genesis has to do with Adam and Eve and their offspring, with us, the crooked timber of humanity. Gnostic discourse, in reacting to the cosmological minimalism of Jewish and Christian creation-narrative, represents therefore a distinct throwback, and not a speculative or philosophical advance, as modern apologists of Late-Antique religious reaction maintain. Given, indeed, that it is a reaction, what else could Gnostic discourse do but abjure the latest version of the creation-story in favor of an older version, in which the prehuman, cosmological details predominate? This is in fact what happens. Consider The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World, two texts from the Nag Hammadi cache that are related to Valentinian Gnosticism.
A novice reader coming to either The Tri-Partite Tractate or The Origin of the World for the first time would likely react to the text with bewilderment and confusion, states of mind that would be fully justified. Is there any modern reference of comparable character? Maybe Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888) or The Urantia Book (1955), but then neither of these hides its indebtedness to ancient Gnosticism. The Tri-Partite Tractate largely employs allegorical abstractions, drawn from Christian Platonism, Alexandrian myth-commentary, and philosophical Judaism; The Origin of the World invokes a plethora of proper names, Greek and Semitic, arranged by genealogy and by spiritual rank, many of them exotic sounding, as though plundered from a raft of separate sources with the deliberate aim of building up a baffling, wild eclecticism.
The Tri-Partite Tractate devotes its first part to the figure called the Father. The Tractate also defines the Father’s relation to two other figures, the Son and the Church. Because these terms have a provenance in the New Testament, the novice reader might suspect that he is involved with a Patristic text. That certain other references seem to be to Platonic cosmology, as articulated in the dialogue Timaeus, would not necessarily squelch the suspicion since Platonism and Christianity began their reconciliation early in writers like Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and Justin Martyr (103-165). Careful interpretation of the Tractate’s language will reveal, however, that these allusions are consistently antithetic and hostile. In this wise, the Tractate insists on the solipsism, the total self-sufficiency of the Father, whom the author eulogizes in the vocabulary of what is known as negative theology. The founding premise of negative theology is that God, as the object of discourse, eludes all positive attributions because he exceeds them; therefore, it is only possible to discuss God in negative terms. The Father of the Tractate is: “Unbegotten, nameless, unnamable, inconceivable, invisible, [and] incomprehensible.” Elsewhere: “He alone is the good”; and “he alone is the one who knows himself, as he is.” This vocabulary of negation implies that anything other than God, even supposing that God somehow calls this otherness into being is evil, rather than good. Not “less good,” one must remark, but evil.
The Father emanated his realm, the Pleroma, which is identical with him, and he brought forth the Son and the Aeons, to be with him in the Pleroma. But, as the Tractate says, “There is [no] primordial form, which [the Father] uses; nor is there any material set out for him, from which he creates what he creates.” The Pleroma is not supposed to be other than God, but rather is his “emanation,” like an aura, that might be said to share his goodness because it has no existence separate from him who emanates it. The little codicils respond deliberately to the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s world-maker or Demiurge, constructs the cosmos from a reservoir of undifferentiated, primordial matter, and with reference to the eternal Forms. The Pleroma nevertheless partakes in ambiguity. It is vulnerable to alteration in a way that the Father is not. It is open to trespass and subversion again in a way that the Father is not.
The Tractate’s Father explicitly never deigns to create the material world, which the text deprecates, when once it is accidentally formed, as a corrupt mockery of the Pleroma removed from it by many degrees. This disinclination to create a physical world differentiates the Tractate’s Father from the God of Genesis – and from the Father, also so-called, of the Gospel. Nor should one confuse the Tractate’s Son with the Son of Man of the Gospel. The former never leaves the presence of the Father, but exists only to distinguish the uniquely “unbegotten” from the singularly “begotten,” which, in resembling the Father, remains unlike anything else that is “begotten.” By its unbegottenness, so to speak, the “unbegotten” furnishes the benchmark for increasing stages of distance from absolute primordial self-sufficiency. Whereas the references to “a primordial form” and “material… from which he creates” intentionally distinguish the Tractate’s Father from Plato’s Demiurge, or World-Creator, as described in Timaeus; there is nevertheless a World-Creator in the Tractate: He is the last-emanated Aeon, archly named “Logos,” who in envy of the Father has the “arrogant thought” to emanate his own Pleroma. The material realm stems from the wicked Aeon’s rebellion, which triggers a catastrophe in the Pleroma.
A kindred-text to the Tractate, The Origin of the World, offers a wild roster of dramatic characters: Adonaios, Astaphaios, Chaos, Eloai, Pistis (Faith), Sabaoth, Sophia (Wisdom), Yaldabaoth or Yao, and finally, after exhausting the alphabet, Zoë, with others in between too numerous to list. Here again a Gnostic author represents the creation of the world as a catastrophe and evaluates matter, in which human beings body themselves forth, as toxic. The author begins by contradicting an accepted truth: “Since everyone – the gods of the world and men – says that nothing has existed prior to Chaos, I shall demonstrate that they all erred.” The demonstration is a parody of logic: If Chaos were darkness, as everyone says, then it would be a shadow; a shadow is the shadow of something; therefore Chaos is ontologically after something else – something really real of which Chaos is merely a privation. Finally, anything subsequent to Chaos, this world for example, would be the privation of a privation, hence doubly counterfeit. What normative religion represents under the label of Creation, The Origin of the World represents, by rhetorical reversal, as de-creation: “A likeness called ‘Sophia’ flowed out of Pistis. She wished that a work should come into being which is like the light which first existed.”
As does the “arrogant thought” of the last-emanated Aeon in The Tri-Partite Tractate, Sophia’s attempt to match the glory of “the light which first existed” disrupts the unity of the pre-creational realm. The result, which The Origin of the World likens to “afterbirth” and “miscarriage,” is this world. A being, Yaldabaoth, emerges in this toxic mess under the delusion that it (or he) represents the sum and total of existence and that he is its creator and master. The Origin of the World then parodies Genesis, ascribing the separation of the waters and the fashioning of the land, and finally the bringing forth of humanity, to the deluded Yaldabaoth, who is the Hebrew Yahweh by a variant of the Biblical name. Yaldabaoth has a son, Sabaoth; the son comes to have acquaintance of Pistis, the male being who is prior to Sophia. Sabaoth – a Gnostic type of Jesus – now rebels against his father. As the text puts it, “He hated his father, the darkness, and his mother, the abyss.” Hatred is the proper attitude to existence.
Both The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World agree that humanity belongs to the degree of being (or perhaps of non-being) at the farthest (most despicable) remove from the self-sufficient Father; but they both also agree that some few human beings differ from the rest by being attuned to the Pleroma and therefore by possessing a strong sense of their alienation in the world of matter. The Tractate refers to the elect as “the spiritual race” or pneumatics and to all others as “the material race” or hylics. As long as the conditions of matter obtain, “the material race” persecutes and oppresses “the spiritual race.” When the botched creation is redeemed through its destruction, the hylics will perish and the pneumatics will be assimilated to their real home, the Pleroma.
These Gnostic tropes of the elect have a relation to another trend of Late Antiquity that is associated with Gnosticism – the Superman or God-Man who appears in such figures as the guru Apollonius of Tyana (15 – 100), celebrated in a Pagan hagiography by Philostratus, and in the magicians such as Simon Magus and Maximus of Ephesus (310 – 372), the latter of whom exercised influence over Julian the so-called Apostate Emperor (reigned 361 – 363). Julian himself in his writings identifies himself with the sun-god Helios. The playwright Ibsen represents Julian as a victim of his own Gnostic tendencies in the “world drama” Emperor and Galilean (1870).
II. In addition to cultivating relentlessly the mythic elaboration with which Genesis and Timaeus largely dispense, both The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World exhibit the anticosmic and antinomian traits discerned in Gnostic discourse by Plotinus and Augustine, whose critiques the previous article to this one summarized. The anticosmic disposition is stronger in The Origin than in the Tractate, especially in the obstetric metaphors of “afterbirth” and “miscarriage.” A misogynistic attitude belongs to the general Gnostic outlook. Insofar as matter is evil and insofar as procreation sustains or prolongs the realm of matter, then women, through giving birth, are more blatantly complicit in the prevailing misery than men. In the words of The Origin: “The man followed the earth, the woman followed the man, and marriage followed the woman, and reproduction followed marriage, and death followed reproduction.” Readers should also pay attention to the attitude towards the Old Testament revealed in The Origin. The Biblical God who creates from benevolence becomes in the Gnostic pseudo-Genesis a tyrant-oppressor against whom the enlightened son must rebel.
Gnosticism is anti-Platonic and anti-Christian but it is also and even more so anti-Semitic. Manichaeism begins, for example, in the repudiation by its prophet of his Jewish-Baptist (Elchasaite) origins; and in Mani’s writings, antipathy to the Old Testament operates like a structuring principle.
In the Tractate and in The Origin, keeping track of cosmological devolution requires a scorecard. The Father emanates Aeons and “Totalities,” as does the Son; and the Aeons emanate additional subdivisions (“Totalities”) within the Pleroma. When the Pleroma suffers its disruption, many layers of toxic matter spill downward from the offense, each containing its own separate “powers,” “archons,” and demonic entities. What attracted people to tales of this sort? A combined sense of alienation from the world and superiority to it is one inescapable answer; but reverting to a single word, one might simply say, resentment. One might remark that elaborate anticosmic narrative and the know-it-all posture play a role in modern popular culture, as in Star Wars, on the one hand, or in the old “Firesign Theater” comedy album Everything You Know Is Wrong on the other. The relation between Sabaoth and Yaldabaoth in The Origin oddly anticipates the relation of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars. The entirety of Leftwing antinomian rhetoric meanwhile resumes itself in the phrase, “everything you know is wrong,” a variant of the bumper-sticker slogan, “Question Authority,” related also to the supercilious verbal ploy, “They just don’t get it.” The author of The Origin begins by iterating words to the effect that, “everything you know is wrong,” and that the benighted many “just don’t get it.”
Some Gnostic prose expresses itself with fewer multiplications of agency and rank and with more lexical subtlety than the Tractate and The Origin. On its surface, and in comparison with those two documents, Valentinus’ Gospel of Truth seems altogether sophisticated and benevolent. Like The Tri-Partite Tractate, The Gospel of Truth ransacks items of New Testament theology and borrows, to put it so, from the Alexandrian or Christian-Platonic vocabulary. As in the Tractate, we read of the Father, of Jesus, of the Logos, and of the wickedness of those who, acting in error, persecute the bearers of the veracious doctrine and prevent the restoration of the Pleroma. The document has the ring of a normative evangelical appeal about it: “The gospel of truth is a joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him, through the power of the Word that came forth from the Pleroma – the one who is in the thought and the mind of the Father, that is, the one who is addressed as the Savior.” It is always useful to recall, in respect of Gnosticism, that the restoration of the Pleroma is equivalent to the annihilation of the material world.
The Tri-Partite Tractate posits God as a totally self-sufficient and self-regarding entity: So too does The Gospel of Truth although concessions to New Testament theology make that element of this particular Gnostic text difficult to see at first. There is in The Gospel of Truth a “Word,” elsewhere a “Shepherd,” and elsewhere a “Christ,” that “became a body,” or who anyway “came by means of fleshly appearance.” The qualification resides in the terminal noun, “appearance,” which contradicts the New Testament’s insistence on incarnation. The Gospel of Truth’s “Son” takes on no flesh; its “Father” intends no physical creation, but rather “the spaces” that arise from “his emanations” have a purely immaterial and luminous character, “light with no shadow.” Such untainted luminosity is ontologically incompatible with matter or “darkness” or “ignorance” or “error.” The Gospel of Truth represents the material world as a “fall” from the Pleroma. Neither does The Gospel of Truth’s Father act to redeem physical nature, once it falls, unless one identifies redemption with abolition. Valentinus writes, “The deficiency of matter has not arisen through the limitlessness of the Father.”
According to The Gospel of Truth, this world arose despite the self-sufficiency of the Father through a catastrophe, the details of which remain obscure. Thus, “Ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror” until “anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see.” The story tells how “error,” exploiting the solidification of “anguish,” “fashioned its own matter foolishly” and “set about making a creature.” A further detail of the exposition, one that differentiates this version of the catastrophe from the version in the Tractate, is that these events happen somehow in the Father. Despite the minor difference, the outline remains the same as in the Tractate. The Gospel of Truth’s “error” is the equivalent of the rebellious Aeon in the Tractate or of Sophia in The Origin of the World. The “creature” of the narrative although grammatically singular seems to designate humanity, or perhaps the Adam from which humanity stems. Thus humanity as a whole is not the creature of the Father, as in Genesis, but the creature of the wicked agent who works in ignorance or envy of the Father.
According to The Gospel of Truth, however, all human beings are not equal. Some – the text implies a minority, who would therefore have the status of election – possess the capability of receiving the “Truth,” that is, the knowledge concerning the privative character of material existence, its nullity, and the justice or non-enormity of its abolition. “If one has knowledge,” as The Gospel of Truth puts it, “he is from above” and “having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him.” By contrast, “he who is ignorant until the end is a creature of oblivion” who will vanish with the material realm when the reception of knowledge by the elect cancels the “error” of the “fall.” As the text says, “The deficiency came into being because the Father was not known,” so that, “when the Father is known, from that moment on the deficiency will no longer exist.”
The Gospel of Truth circulated widely in the Imperium. Whether The Gospel was known to Celsus (Second Century), who wrote The True Doctrine, is an open question, but the possibility seems high. The True Doctrine is an anti-Christian tract condemning Gospel religion while advocating the intellectual seriousness and plausibility of a late variant of the Platonic Tradition. The work of Celsus is not quite Gnostic although in reading it one might observe numerous Gnosticizing tendencies, but its attitude towards Christianity resembles the attitude of Valentine towards the same. Celsus condemns Christianity as a creed of simpletons and therefore as a doctrine most fit for the ignorant. The True Doctrine shares with The Gospel of Truth the vehement conviction that neither Judaism nor Christianity is original, but that they are, rather, plagiarisms of earlier, higher doctrines associated with the antique nations such as Egypt. Celsus is also convinced that, “There is no god worthy of the name who created mortals: whatever god there is, he must have made immortal beings, and mortal beings are their handiwork, as the Philosopher teaches.”
III. The Gospel of Truth proclaims that when the light of knowledge abolishes the darkness of matter, or “form,” perfection will have been restored throughout the Pleroma “in the fusion of Unity.” At that moment the foreordained recipient of knowledge “will attain himself… he will purify himself into Unity, consuming matter within himself like fire, and darkness by light, death by life.” The theme of Unity, the antithesis of “form,” looms large in The Gospel of Truth, as it does again in The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World. Unity is related in these texts to unanimity; unity also stands apart, in all three documents, from such traits, identifiable with material creation, as (leaving off the quotation marks) envy, strife, darkness, disturbance, instability, blood, what you have vomited, worms, sickness (The Gospel of Truth); likenesses, models, phantasms, disobedience, rebellion, ambition, lust, offspring, fighters, warriors, troublemakers, apostates, lovers of power (The Tri-Partite Tractate); envy, wrath, impiety, jealousy, weeping, sighing, mourning, lamenting, bitterness, quarrelsomeness, transgression, and molded bodies (The Origin of the World). The last of those, the molded bodies, are identical with what The Gospel of Truth, using its vocabulary of abstraction, calls “form,” or what in philosophy goes by the name principium individuationis.
Unity and unanimity belong exclusively to the undisrupted Pleroma. The Gospel of Truth says, “The perfection of all is in the Father” and “we must see to it above all that the house will be holy and silent for the Unity.” The second of the two phrases means that dissent and complaint needlessly prolong the disruption of the Pleroma. Putative knowledge that fails to correspond with the secret knowledge that the Father sends forth in his “word” or his “living book” amounts only to obstreperous false knowledge. What does it mean to accept the “word”? It means, “To cease laboring in search of” truth. In these assertions, the Gnostic doctrine of The Gospel of Truth presents itself as a closed system. Normative religiosity and normative philosophy by contrast define authentic living as a continuous quest. The Jesus of the Gospel rarely makes a direct assertion. He speaks by preference in parables, which require the listener to reach his own conclusion according to his best lights. Socrates taught, not by prohibiting questions or claiming the matter settled, but rather by open-ended conversation. A noteworthy feature in normative philosophers like Plutarch and Seneca (the former an adherent of the Platonic school and the latter of the Stoic school) is the frequent concession to the rival school. Plutarch or Seneca will write that we prefer the Platonic answer but let us not forget what the Stoics say, or vice versa.
Normative religion and normative philosophy also both begin by accepting as an axiom that existence exists. This axiom provides the condition for the entire remainder of knowledge, the pursuit of which no searcher can exhaust. Gnosticism begins by denying that existence exists; Gnosticism indeed asserts the non-existence of a merely apparent existence. Gnosticism declares that what the ordinary person takes for his consciousness of reality is but false consciousness. Gnosticism would silence the false consciousness, which offends its stance of claiming priority by antithesis. Rhetorical ploys of such invidious complexity resist understanding and perplex the critic whose only real-time response must be to say that it is not so. A simplified version of the Gnostic claim of absolute priority exists, however: It is the Koran’s claim to predate both Testaments through its eternal pre-existence, such that Jewish and Christian texts become a plagiarism on the word of Allah. In this way actual chronology becomes, for Muslims, an illusion – or rather a lie propagated by infidels.
The theme of unanimity is central to all variants of Gnosticism. An examination of the centrality of unanimity in Gnostic discourse will help in bringing to greater clarification a point made earlier in the argument – namely that Gnostic discourse represents, not an advance to some new level of speculative sophistication, but rather a throwback to religious primitivism. Consider the imagery of unanimity in The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World. In the Tractate we read that the Aeons, who proceed from the Father, acknowledged and honored the Father “in a song of glorification,” in which devotion “they were drawn into a mingling and a combination and a unity with one another.” They constituted “the pleromatic congregation.” The crime of the rebellious Aeon (“Logos”) consisted in his trespassing “the boundary set to speech in the Pleroma” when he attempted “to grasp the incomprehensibility.” The “boundary on speech” functions then as a boundary on inquiry. Crossing the boundary generates “sickness,” afflicts the trespasser with a “female nature,” and separates him from the Pleroma in the afterbirth-world of his sub-creation. The last and lowest degree of this sub-creation – the hylic or material race – is doomed to destruction when truth abolishes error.
In The Origin, Yaldabaoth behaves in an even more blatantly criminal manner than does the rebellious Aeon in the Tractate. The Origin deploys terms more specific and more recognizably mythic and symbolic than those in the Tri-Partite Tractate. Readers learn of Yaldabaoth’s arrogance, tyranny, lechery, and destructiveness directly and in rich detail. Yaldabaoth’s fate in the apocalyptic conclusion of The Origin issues from the judgment of a female Aeon who assumes the role to “drive out the gods of Chaos whom she had created together with the First Father.” The avenger “will cast them down in the depths” where “they will be wiped out by their own injustice.” The label “First Father” refers here, not to the primal Father, but to the false creator, to Yaldabaoth himself. At that moment of “justice” the Pleroma will be healed and the knowers of secret knowledge will ascend into light.
In both the Tractate and The Origin we have paradigmatic scapegoat-myths, of the type identified by René Girard as quintessentially mythic and as representative of the ritual violence of sacrificially organized societies. Enuma Elish offers as good an example as any. Tiamat, the Primal Mother, behaves monstrously, tyrannizing her children and preventing any semblance of order. Marduk consults the elder gods, Tiamat’s first born, and they tell him that they are powerless against the monster, but that he is the hero who will subdue her. Marduk fights and kills Tiamat; he uses the dismembered parts of the slain body to create the regions of the world – the land, the sea, and the sky, and all other features. The other gods hail Marduk as their king. Order, as Girard would observe, emerges in the myth from the slaying, which the story depicts as productive of peace and proper rank (preferable to chaos) in the form of unanimity minus one, the excluded, polarizing party being the victim. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus’ establishment of order requires the violent suppression of the Titans, after which Zeus becomes king in heaven. Tiamat is a monster; so are the Titans in their behavior. Oedipus, whose expulsion restores order in Thebes, is “guilty” (as the myth would have it) of stereotypical polluting crimes charged against victims.
The Gospel tells a scapegoat-story too with the difference, as Girard points out, that its narrative denies the stereotypical charges, declares the victim innocent, and generally unmasks the subterfuges required by sacrifice in order that it should be successful. The Gospel, concludes Girard, is therefore not a myth but an anti-myth; the Gospel is also in this way the foundation for all subsequent non-sacred – and non-sacrificial – thinking in the Western continuum. Sir James G. Frazer anticipated Girard in many ways in The Golden Bough although Frazer saw no significant difference between the Gospel narrative and mythic narrative, with its basis in sacrifice.
IV. I draw my quotations of Gnostic theology and cosmology from The Nag Hammadi Library, a compendium edited by James M. Robinson, first published in 1978. Robinson’s Introduction includes passages that now strike one’s sensibility as dated to the point of embarrassment. These same passages nevertheless tell us something about the allure of the Gnostic texts, with their cosmological science-fiction-like plots and exotic personae, especially in the atmosphere of social rebellion thirty-five years ago. Robinson notes that the individual texts of the Nag Hammadi cache although differing from one another markedly in detail nevertheless belonged to the ecclesiastical library of a unified community. The reader-possessors of the texts must have found in the variety of them a single coherent point of view. This point of view consisted, as Robinson writes, of “estrangement from the mass of humanity” and “an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it.”
Robinson adds this: “As such, the focus of [the Nag Hammadi library] has much in common with primitive Christianity, with eastern religions, and with holy men of all times, as well as with the more secular equivalents of today, such as the counter-culture movements coming from the 1960’s.” Like their Gnostic precursors, participants in the “counter-culture movements” find unity through “sharing an in-group’s knowledge both of the disaster-course of the culture and of an ideal, radical alternative not commonly known.”
Robinson characterizes Gnosticism as benign, pacifistic, withdrawn, unworldly, and immaculately non-involved in politics, society, or the market. Yet the “counter-culture movements coming from the 1960’s,” which Robinson likens to the Late Antique sects, were anything but benign, pacifistic, and non-involved; they proved to be extremely aggressive, their constituents inserting themselves into institutions with the fixed plan of imposing their peculiar view of reality on the society as a whole, not excluding the use of coercion in doing so. The benign withdrawal invoked by Robinson describes Les soixante-huitards quite as inaccurately as it does the Second Century “knowers” to whom Robinson advocatively compares them. A good word for capturing the essence of Gnosis is the Latin noun superbia, with its moral connotation of haughtiness, pride, and spiritual self-inflation. A fine example of Gnosis as superbia comes in the text called Zostrianos. This tract purports to record in the first person the elaborate initiation or “baptism” by which one of the pneumatics recognizes his superior status and acquires the secret knowledge appropriate to his “race.” Zostrianos becomes “a messenger of the perfect male race.”
As in The Tri-Partite Tractate, The Origin of the World, and The Gospel of Truth, in Zostrianos again we find extreme disapprobation of existence and intense execration of humanity. During his illumination, while Zostrianos rises through the levels of being above terrestrial non-being, he marks every new altitude with refrain-like phrases such as “I ascended to the Transmigration which really exists” and “I ascended to the Repentance which really exists” and “I stood there having seen a light of the Truth, which really exists from its self-begotten root.” The Zostrianos-writer equates creation, so-called, with non-existence or delusion – but always with a toxic non-existence or a wicked delusion. The Zostrianos-writer glorifies everything uncreated or “self-begotten,” the highest degree of which is “the Self-Begotten God.” The trope of a cosmic ascent goes back to Parmenides of Elea (born 540 0r 515 BC), who made use of it in his poem On Nature; such an ascent also figures prominently in Plato’s dialogues Symposium and Phaedrus. Zostrianos parodies all of these.
The emphasis on maleness in Zostrianos should not surprise us: The Origin of the World uses a misogynistic vocabulary of female effluvium to deprecate the material world; a pronounced antipathy to procreation furthermore pervades Gnosticism right through to its medieval reassertion in the Paulician and Cathar religions. Paulicianism seems to have a root in Manichaeism, via the Bogomil sect, as does also Catharism. I remarked in my earlier summary of Augustine’s commentary on the Manichaeans (see Part I of this series of essays) that the ideal of Manichaean discipline was absolute continence. The perfection of the “Self-Begotten God” in Zostrianos consists in his non-contamination by any particle of the female – the birth-giving – principle as well as in his absolute self-sufficiency. Indeed, as a result of the “baptism” in the “self-begotten water,” Zostrianos himself becomes one of “the Self-Begotten Ones,” a realized pneumatic.
A female figure in Zostrianos, “Barbelo,” whose name means “virgin,” is spiritually “male” due to her “knowledge of the Triple Powerful Invisible Great Spirit,” presumably a title of the Father. It remains an admonition, however, to “flee from the madness and bondage of femininity, and choose for yourself the salvation of masculinity.”
The theme of unanimity also makes an appearance in Zostrianos. The realized pneumatic “comes into being with reference to the knowledge of others.” Before the “baptism,” the aspirant is “speechless because of the pains and limitlessness of matter… He is made living [a bad thing] and bound always within the cruel, cutting bonds through every evil breath, until he acts again and begins again to come into being through himself.” The unanimity of the pneumatics reflects the unanimity of the Aeons in their relation to the Father: “All of them exist in one since they dwell together and are perfected individually in fellowship and have been filled with the Aeon he really exists.”
Zostrianos like The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World deploys a large lexicon of exotic and intimidating names, each of which designates a particular agent within the complicated salvation-scheme of the epiphany. Among these are: Doxomedon, Sethus, Antiphantes, Seldao, Elenos, Armedon, Phorē, Zoē, Zēoē, Zēooo, Zēsen, Ēooooēaēē, Harmozel, Orneos, Euthrounios, Oraiel, Arros, Daveithe, Laraneus, Epiphanios, Eideos, Eleleth, and Kodere – to quote the litany from a single paragraph. The exoticism is no doubt deliberate, constituting an arbitrary difficulty, in mastery of which the initiate becomes identifiable as a member of the in-group. The in-group’s palaver has the effect of baffling everyone in the out-group and so too of forming an impassable membrane between the in-group and the out-group.
Given the provocative weirdness and outright inhumanism of the Gnostic texts, the criticism that such writers as Plotinus and Augustine direct at Gnosticism actually seems tame. Most disturbing in Gnostic doctrine, as the sample-texts cited above attest, is the prominence of unanimity as the supremely desirable state, with silence validated as preferable to volubility in so-called error. (“The debate is over,” as some people like to say.) I have suggested that this unanimity represents the resurgence in Gnosticism of sacrificial thinking since its practical function is to sustain in-group solidarity by identifying the slightest hint of dissent so as to make it eligible for expulsion. In a subsequent third essay, I will examine the status of Gnosticism in the work of Hans Jonas, Kurt Rudolph, Giovanni Filoramo, and one or two others. In a fourth essay, I will revisit the discussion of Gnosticism in the work of Eric Voegelin.
Afterthoughts, 2015: Looking back on my endeavor to summarize key Gnostic texts so that my contemporaries might understand them, I am struck again – as I was at the time – by how bizarre and inhuman those texts are; how much they resist reading and understanding; and how perverse they are in their endless baroque self-elaborations. The complexity has a point, of course: It is esoteric in the crudest way, a private language, spoken and understood only by the in-group and the litmus therefore for determining who us “in” and who is “out.” Outsiders beware. The inhumanity, the sheer weirdness, of the Gnostic pamphlets, also has a point: The Gnostic in-group dissociates itself from humanity; it sees itself, by virtue of commanding the rococo lore, as superhuman – and the out-group as human in a radically privative way, a kind of sub-men. The secret language of the secret knowledge functions not merely to baffle outsiders, as I wrote a few paragraphs previously, but to divulge to one’s in-group peers one’s mandatory contempt for outsiders.
The Nag Hammadi document entitled “The Letter of Peter to Philip” furnishes a typical example of the phenomenon. The Apostles have gathered on the Mount of Olives seeking illumination. They pose the three Gnostic questions: “How are we detained in this dwelling place? – How did we come to this place – In what manner shall we depart?” They petition for “boldness” to combat “the powers that fight against us” and inquire how the “deficiency of the Aeons” might be overcome so that the Pleroma should, at last, be restored. A voice, speaking out of “the light,” answers them: The Pleroma fell “when the disobedience and the foolishness of the mother appeared without the commandment of the majesty of the Father.” According to the text, the mother wished “to raise up Aeons” – that is, create godlike issue, with no paternal component, to be her children and servants.
Thus far the “Letter” gives us an esoteric allegory of Eve and the Apple, with Eve, the would-be divinity, endeavoring vainly to trump the Father by the demiurgic act of making a cosmos and filling it with creatures, her Fatherless children. An Adam-figure now comes on stage (so to speak), bearing the etiquette of “The Arrogant One”: “And when she spoke, the Arrogant One followed. And when she left behind a part, the Arrogant One laid hold of it, and it became a deficiency.” The “part” would appear to be one of the spontaneously generated children; it would also be to be stillborn – the recurrent “abortion” of the Gnostic Myth. Perhaps all the mother’s children were stillborn. The next line of the text could be interpreted to mean that. It says, “This is the deficiency of the Aeons.”
Where philosophy and the Gospel transcend myth, as I have written, the Gnostic texts revert to myth. The myths of the Babylonian priest-poets and of Hesiod were certainly grotesque, filled with incest, patricide, matricide, and other nasty plot-elements of that kind that led Plato to denounce myth. When Gnosticism reverts to myth, it ups the ante. The Letter continues: “Now when the Arrogant One had taken a part, he sowed it… he placed powers over it and authorities.” What does the metaphor “to sow” mean? It is hard to avoid the sexual connotation. Having “sowed” the “part,” the Arrogant One “enclosed it in the Aeons which are dead,” with the result that “all the powers of the world rejoiced that they had been begotten.”
What has previously served for an Adam-figure now serves for a Jehovah-figure. First the mother tried to make a cosmos, botching the job, and now the Arrogant One repeats the failed gesture of the mother. It would seem that this second abortive creation is the writer’s reinterpretation of Genesis and that the text brings this world into condemnation through the anti-cosmic tropes. It is at this juncture of the mythic plot that Gnosis, as such, enters the narrative. The Aeons praise themselves for their begottenness, “but they do not know the pre-existent Father, since they are strangers to him.” Indeed, the Aeons now cooperate with the Arrogant One to create humanity, “to mold mortal bodies,” but these are “an image in the place of an image, and a form in the place of a form.”
The voice, speaking from the light, has told this story. The voice now addresses the Apostles directly, implying that the Christ of the Gospel was a false apparition and that he – the voice – is the real Christ and Savior. The voice tells the Apostles, in answer to one of their initial questions, that, “It is because of this [all that has been narrated in the myth] that you are being detained, because you belong to me.” The voice promises its addressees that: “When you strip off from yourselves what is corrupted, then you will become illuminators in the midst of mortal men.” While I experience some unease in quoting from Harold Bloom’s American Religion (1992), that writer’s ascription to one of the spiritual outbursts from New York State’s “Burned Over” district seems apt to Pseudo-Peter’s epistle. Bloom, who regards all typical American sects as Gnostic or Gnosticizing, writes how “freedom for an American… means two things: being free of the Creation, and being free of the presence of other human beings.”
Not to be taken for human, for an element of Creation, and to be “free from the presence of… human beings” – “The Letter of Peter to Philip” expresses just these attitudes. The differentiation of the illuminati from the plagiarized images occurs through access to the knowledge. The division of the wise from the foolish, of the educated from the vulgar, is certainly a recurrent theme in High Culture. At the beginning of philosophy, for example, in the epigrams of Heraclitus, we find the stark separation of those to whom the Logos speaks and those who, hearing it not, heed it not, and go through their lives like sleepwalkers, each in his own private universe. Yet the Logos is not, in principle, inaccessible. It has the tendency to hide itself, truly enough, but it remains available to investigation, with no seeker excluded apriori. Heraclitus writes to facilitate access to the Logos. It is also the case that the Logos “does and does not wish to be called by the name of Zeus,” a saying that implies a possible partial understanding of the principle through myth which is not inappreciable.
The “Letter,” by contrast, is studiously opaque. A short document of a few hundred words, it has almost as many roles and titles as Dungeons and Dragons. Like Dungeons and Dragons, it implies a club or a clique. The “Letter” is moreover not the most obscure of the Nag Hammadi documents, but is rather a comparatively accessible one. The “Letter” conforms to myth in another way, by being eliminative or sacrificial in its allegory. As brief as it is, the “Letter” is replete with scapegoats, all of whom are despicable. First there is the mother, who, envious of the Father, gives birth to an abortion. Next there is the “Arrogant One,” who perpetrates necrophilia and is a plagiarist or counterfeiter. Finally there are the zombie-like creatures called forth by the “Arrogant One,” the human race, on account of whom the illuminati have been imprisoned in the vileness of matter.
It is important that in the Gnostic apocalypse the world cannot be redeemed; it can only be annihilated, so that a disencumbered Pleroma might reassert itself, having shaken loose all that disgusting mortification. Belonging to the mortified false creation is the sexual impulse and its consequence of procreation. It follows from the premises of the doctrine that an anti-cosmic belief-system will also be an anti-procreation belief system. Procreation, from the Gnostic perspective, constitutes a great scandal. Procreation sustains this world; through it hoi polloi continue to exist, standing in the way of the perfect freedom that requires the dissolution of the universe, with its built-in, non-negotiable order. Under its scapegoating penchant, the “Letter” vilifies procreation. The mother births an abortion; the “Arrogant One” copulates with a dead thing (the “part” or remnant, which we may suppose is the afterbirth). The imagery suggests a high degree of repulsion – an intensely neurotic fixation or even a psychopathological state.
I wrote earlier in the discussion that the Gnostic theme of election has a relation “to another trend of Late Antiquity that is associated with Gnosticism – the Superman or God-Man.” The Apostles of the “Letter” conform to the Superman or God-Man paradigm. The voice tells them that they differ from other men in that the ground of their being is “the inner man.” The “inner man” is the equivalent of what elsewhere in the Gnostic literature bears the name of “the spark.” These Apostles are not creatures. They are prior to creation – and thus superior to creation, which is a type of cosmic coining. Their calling is to “fight the archons,” that is, to dismantle the false creation, or what normative consciousness acknowledges as the structure of reality and the order of being. The battleground implied by the “Letter” is a thoroughly dualistic one, reminiscent of the Manichaean dualism.
In The Wisdom of the World (1999), Rémi Brague penetrates to the heart of Gnosticism when he writes that, “nuances aside, the fundamental tenor remains a devaluation of the physical universe.” Alluding to an attempt to domesticate Gnosticism, Brague adds, “Not even Ioan Couliano can cite a single text in which it is affirmed that the world is good.” Whereas “in classical Hellenism,” Brague argues, “there was an almost unbreakable association between the beautiful and the good”; yet “in Gnosticism… the world could be beautiful, but it is not good.” Indeed, “the world is the full measure… of evil.” Where beauty appears, as in the reckless Sophia, it functions only as a diversion, or as a false mitigation of delinquency, which moves the onlooker to a spurious sympathy. For the sensitive soul – and the Gnostic always sees himself as the sensitive soul, set above others in his attunement to existence – the only possible experience of the world is, as Brague puts it, “anguish” or “pain.”
In Egyptian religion, Hebrew theology, and Greek philosophy, the “Wisdom of the World” to which Brague’s title refers means the imitation, by men, of the order displayed by the regularity of nature, both earthly and heavenly. In Gnosticism, however, “there can be no question of [any] ‘wisdom of the world’ in the sense in which I understand it,” Brague writes. “The authentic wisdom of ‘he who knows,’ that of the Gnostic, is the knowledge of ways of evading”; it is merely “a wisdom of the negation of the world.” In the Twenty-First Century, the predominant discourse is that of negation – as though reality is negotiable and can be evaded. Gnosticism must ultimately be self-defeating. In Antiquity, men overcame the Gnostic temptation, but in modernity men have succumbed to it grossly. Nemesis will be severe.