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CHAPTER I. “What are all the worlds to me”?
“We are a careless or criminal blunder, the fruit of engagement of the flawed deity and crude material. ...The world presented as a primarily pernicious creation, an oblique and perverted reflection of the divine celestial decrees. Creation as a play of chance. ...Like on a plain at the hour of magnificent sunset: the skies are solemn and burning and the Earth is wretched”.
"A Vindication of the False Basilides", Jorge Luis Borges
I-1.Descent into darkness
Two thousand years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean there appeared a religious movement later known in history as Gnosticism, and its supporters as Gnostics (from the Greek word “gnosis” – knowledge).
It was an anxious and painful time. The time of a sinking feeling of parting with a great epoch. To a certain extent, even a parting with History – which has survived its splendour, ended and was passing into non-existence. This great epoch was not unambiguous, it was full of dramatic and bloody collisions, follies and vices, disappointments and decays, meaningless wars and reckless tyrants. But it was a huge, multi-coloured History full of life and achievements, and it was nearing the end as if falling into hazy, tenuous emptiness devoid of any contours.
Three cultures defined Late Antiquity in all its confusion and contrariety: Greek philosophy, Judaical monotheism and Eastern mysticism. Inconceivably intertwining, interacting and superimposing on one another, they were forming colourful and constantly changing, like in a kaleidoscope, mosaics of philosophical and religious inflorescences. However, on the edge of the new era two of them – Greek philosophy and Judaical monotheism – hung in the deepest crisis.
Far behind remained classical Greek culture with its bloom of Athenian democracy and philosophy. Left behind were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the multitude of ideas, Olympic Games, the search for an ideal political system, the bloom of polises and Periclean Athenas, masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides. Nearer the time, but also becoming a thing of the past, were Alexander’s military achievements, triumph of Hellenism, magnificent bloom of megapolises – Alexandria, Pergamon and Antiochia, gigantic libraries, medical schools, monumental architectural complexes and scientific-technical achievements comparable at the time only with industrial revolution of the 19th century. From now on not Hellenes but Romans ruled the world - the nation of rulers and warriors, but not the creators.
However, this was not the limit. No matter how harsh Rome was, it was acceptable while remaining the republic. While it granted rights to the citizens of the conquered countries and respected virtue. And even when the Republic was defied and monarchy came to power in Rome, there remained hope that, at the very least, Rome will preserve in purity its own unsophisticated ideals. But even this hope was not destined to come true, and the Hellenic world was observing with horror and distaste the monarchy being transformed into an ugly despotism – reckless, abominable and crazy, with caligulas, neros, nymphomaniacs on the throne (1), horses-senators (2) and tyrants-killers of philosophers (3), bacchanalias and hosts of slaves whisked away to the Coliseum to meet the needs of the rabble. “Unlimited vice combined with unlimited power” (4) from now on ruled the world.
Those who still believed that the times of Nero and Caligula are a grim aberration and that the times of dignity and honour were restored by the Antonine dynasty, were in for a big disappointment. The death of Marcus Aurelius plunged the empire into darkness in finality, and its Hellenic subjects – into indifference and jaded consternation.
Before the fatal turning point the world was not perfect but enriched with ideas and belief in a virtuous order. The Universe was perceived as a single, breathing organism filled with light: “indeed, a living creature endowed with soul and reason”оf Plato (5), “harmony of the spheres” of Pythagoras is full of the harmony of numbers, shapes and sounds. Undoubtedly, Plato’s demiurge was a fair, virtuous and imaginative creator.
A man suffered in this world but felt like he was the particle of the great and eternal order. Not being free in a material sense, he was endowed with free will, could enjoy “apathy” – the synonym of wisdom and virtue, according to stoics, or “Ataraxia” – epicurean peace of mind and equanimity.
A Hellene measured himself by God, acknowledged his beneficent derivation and regarded His creation with respect and even piety. Whether he was a stoic, Pythagorean or Neo-Platonist, he did not feel alien to the world, accepted it in all its fullness and revelled in the play of its colours and inflorescences as if he found himself in a magic garden where even sweetness is fraught with hidden danger. “This Universe, too, exists by Him and looks to Him — the Universe as a whole and every God within it — and tells of Him to men, all alike revealing the plan and will of the Supreme”, - wrote Plotinus (6). “God and the world of Nature must be one, and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. … But man himself was born to contemplate and imitate the world, being in no wise perfect, but, if I may so express myself, a particle of perfection”, - believed M. Tullius Cicero) (7).
However, this world was crumbling from under one’s feet. Evil was not just present in it as an inevitable ingredient of living and immense life, it was spreading, striking everything around itself and permeating all pores of existence. It was eclipsing the rest of the world’s colours, impregnating all of the spheres of being, depriving of choice, overmastering by its inevitability. It was taking possession of the souls, disarming the mind, paralysing with its might.
This descent into darkness could not but resonate in the souls of impressionable and thinking people and provoke questions and doubts. What are the real aims of gods? Should and can a human being gaze at the follies committed around with a favourable indifference as before? Fully subject to Fate, is he capable of preserving faith in virtue? Without any doubt, a man of Hellenistic culture, no matter where he lived – in Rome, Alexandria, Pergamon or Antiochia – had to try to explain to himself the reason for universal madness and exasperation, and this meant rethinking of a divine and human nature.
Paradoxically, Judaeans were also experiencing the same condition of emptiness and hopelessness, although the starting point of their path was the opposite of that of the Greeks. With perplexity and later – with undisguised horror a pious Judaean was observing the crumbling of the firmament created by the descendants of Zerubbabel, Esdras and Nehemiah (8), pride pushing aside religious outburst, the name of the Creator being defiled and trodden into mud. Torah’s zealots turned into a closed sacerdotal body: temple aristocracy (Sadducees) – extremely spoiled and possessed by yearning for luxury, and their sworn enemies – “Perushim” (Pharisees) immersed in dogmatism and conceit. Religious cult – the supreme value of a God-fearing Judaean– found itself the hostage of petty passions, political ambitions and unfounded discords; Torah’s wonderful world fell to the cold pieces of formal rites.
The fear of divine wrath, which was approaching inexorably, burned out the hearts of believers; “the skies locked up” and the God’s country pined like an abandoned bride (9).
People turned away from their God, the court was held by “hypocrites and scribes”, child killers acceded to the throne, zealots, blind in their madness, succeeded the descendants of the Maccabees, murdering their congeners. What the true believers were afraid of since the fall of the First Temple became real – the Second Temple fell, the Promised Land was dripping with blood and the stench of rotting corpses. Horror and confusion filled the heart of the one for whom Torah was both the light and the lamp. Benevolent Creator, like in Hellenes’ culture, was leaving this world, conventional answers could not satisfy either the thinkers or the believers.
The shadow of the doldrums descended on the civilization, dithering its contours and corroding its foundations. The mosaics of brilliant achievements, teachings and ideas dissolved in blood and dirt of “new order”. The life of humankind more and more concentrated around the two poles: the unbridled pagan one, self-destructive hedonism on the one hand, and religious fanaticism, on the other.
Hell seemed unavoidable and the questions of the origin of Evil and salvation required new, brand new, answers.
1 - Caligula’s wife Messalina went down in history as the synonym of debauchery and vice;
2 – Caligula made his horse the citizen of Rome and later a senator. He planned to appoint him a consul, and only death stopped him from realising his plan;
3 - Seneca – philosopher-Stoic – was murdered by his disciple Nero;
4 - Seneca about Caligula: “Gaius Caesar, whom in my opinion Nature produced in order to show what unlimited vice would be capable of when combined with unlimited power, dined one day at a cost of ten millions of sesterces: and though in this he had the assistance of the intelligence of all his subjects, yet he could hardly find how to make one dinner out of the tribute-money of three provinces”.
5 – “Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God”. Plato, “Timaeus”;
6 – Plotinus, “Against the Gnostics. Against Those That Affirm the Creator of the Cosmos and the Cosmos Itself to Be Evil”;
7 – M. Tullius Cicero, “The Nature of the Gods” (“De Natura Deorum”);
8 – Zerubbabel who restored the temple altar; the clergyman Esdras and the Jewish ethnarch of Judaea in the Persian empire Nehemiah laid the basis for a social, religious, economic and state life of the restored Judaea;
9 – Deuteronomy Chapter 11:17: “and the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you”.
Abraxas Stone or Gem from The Gnostics and their remains by Charles W. King, 1887
Wiki, Charles W. King
I-2. God and Creator. Spirit and Matter
“…this trumpery body, the prison and fetter of the spirit; …but the spirit itself is holy and eternal”.
“…that greatest proof that the spirit of man is divine be true, the theory, namely, that some parts and as it were sparks of the stars have fallen down upon earth and stuck there in a foreign substance. Our thought bursts through the battlements of heaven, and is not satisfied with knowing only what is shown to us”.
Seneca, “Consolatio ad Helviam”, “De otio”
Gnosticism answered these questions. Loving, just, omnipotent and virtuous God – such is the Judaeas’ Creator. “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. … I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior”, Isaiah proclaimed. * “Behold, God is great, and we know him not!” Job humbly agreed. Plato’s Demiurge comes across as a just and righteous Creator.
Gnostics overthrow the Demiurge from the pedestal. Yes, he is the creator of the Cosmos, the material world, although not all-seeing, compassionate, merciful and taking care of a man, but ignorant and conceited. He is not God, he is just a pitiful shadow of God, that of the Light of inconceivable Depth. Even the antipode of God, according to pure dualists, is avaricious and cunning. He is not the Master but just a craftsman – pompous and vain. An absurd caricature of an inconceivable spirituality; “miscarriage” which presented itself to the world as a result of dramatic collisions in higher spheres – at best. The ruler of the world of war and darkness – at worst.
The Cosmos, matter, flesh are Evil incompatible with divine Spirit, a substance which it finds alien and repugnant. This entire world resembling more of a torture chamber, in which demons devilise, is no more that vicious, abominable parody for ultramundane higher spheres where light, peace and harmony rule and only a coward, prude and boor can claim that the life of the flesh is directly relevant to the infinite and eternal – unknowable God.
But a man, an absurd and suffering creation which is doomed and is a fruit of the Creator’s madness or ruses, at the same time carries a particle of divine light. And this particle (pneuma) makes him connected to a genuinely divine knowledge; the knowledge helping to grasp the essence of the world and one’s own place in it. This knowledge is gnosis. A man who has knowledge will never allow himself to be caught in a trap prepared by the Creator-Demiurge. He will be indifferent to the temptations of this world – the enticements of flesh, spirit and intellect; to vanity, power, greed, lust and narcissism. He is above the vanities of this world, above passions and quarrelsome prejudices which imbue our life, above idols, figures of worship, zealous devotion and worshipping whomever and whatever. He is calm in his Knowledge and turned to the ultramundane God, no matter of what his life is like and how he spends it in his dismissal of the material world.
Such is the quintessence of Gnosticism. It is in the opposition of God and Creator, Spirit and matter; and at the same time – in presence of the particle of Spirit in the material dungeon. All the rest is a shiny wrapper, inflorescences of endless hues, overflowing with religious, mystical, astrological and philosophical systems.
In its covers Gnosticism is so diverse and multifaceted that at times it seems it represents completely different approaches and perceptions of the world. Even the most authoritative researchers of this movement, such as Hans Jonas, admitted that they were unable to reflect all the intricate and interwoven, like the branches of an overgrown tree, compositions of all of its authors. But the idea, with all its variations and turns, remains unchanged: the world is an obvious evil, the creation of the forces of darkness, according to the dualistic Persian school; or a sorrowful result of the fatal disruption of harmony of the divine world, according to the monodualistic** Egyptian-Syrian school. Sorrowful both for the Creator of matter himself and for the man in whose image and likeness it was moulded.
* Here and further all Bible citations are taken from English Standard Version
**Monodualism – polar worlds originating from one source.
I-2.1 In the clutches of Heimarmene
A lion-faced deity found on a Gnostic gem in Bernard de Montfaucon's L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures.
I-2.1-a Creation as a random incidence
The second direction includes an incalculable number of movements, sects and groups, but the leading and the brightest philosophical school, fundamental and justified, is presented by Cerinthus, Basilides and Valentinus. Aside from them, there is the teaching of Marcion of Sinope.
Cerinthus is considered to be the contemporary of John the Evangelist and his main ideological opponent. The church sees in him the main heresiarch, the founding father of the Gnostic School. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, disciple of John the Apostle, tells how John, who came to the public baths and saw Cerinthus there, dashed off in horror and confusion, screaming out curses addressed to his opponent, “Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!” (1).
The first Christian authors clung to the conviction that the First and the Second Epistle of John the Evangelist were aimed directly against Cerinthus.
It is known about Basilides that he used to live in the first half of the second century in Alexandria, and the most productive period of his activity fell on the years of Emperor Adrian’s rule. According to one of the versions, he used to call himself the disciple of Apostle Matthew, according to another one – Menander Antioch who called himself the disciple of Apostle Peter. His most famous work is “Exegetica”.
Valentinus, the main teacher of the Gnostic School and the author of “The Gospel of Truth” (2), by an assumption of religions historian Philip Schaff, was an Egyptian Judaea who received his education in Alexandria. Tertullian maintains that at one time he was close to the Orthodox Church, unsuccessfully laid claim to the bishop’s post and, having reacted vehemently to being rejected, began speaking out against its doctrine. Whether it really happened or not, cannot be verified. It is known that Valentinus preached in Rome in the late thirties of the 2th century and died in Cyprus.
Marcion, bishop’s son from Pontus on the Black Sea, was cursed by the bishops and his own father, went to preach in Rome, despised any authority, defied canons and was anathematised by the Church. The Gnosticism’s critic Irenaeus of Lions, tells about the meeting in Rome of previously mentioned God-fearing Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, with Marcion: “Marcion met him on one occasion, and said: "Dost thou know me?” Polycarp replied: “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan”. (3). Anathematised, Marcion returned from Rome to Asia Minor, created his own gospel, but, according to Tertullian, at the end of his life he repented and even asked for “churching”. Whether it is true or not, nobody will ever know.
The Gnosticism of the Syrian-Alexandrian School is a monodualistic religion: evil exists in it not as an independent substance and power but as part of the divine world, the result of “system error”, which took place in celestial confines. Matter is infinitely far from the world of Spirit, and still it is its involuntary emanation. “Cosmos was a rash and malevolent improvisation engineered by defective angels”, - Borges sums up this perception of the world (4).
Each philosopher has his own way of describing divine drama which has doomed to suffer both the Man and the Spirit. One way or another, this is not about anthropomorphic characters, like in monotheistic religions, but about images – poetic and at the same time inconceivable.
According to Cerinthus, the Creator is an intermediate instance, which is higher and more virtuous than the angels who appeared as a result of falling apart from Him – the real creators of Cosmos and public laws. Cerinthus, according to Irenaeus, gave rise to the idea that “...world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all” (5).
Basilides’ God, unimaginable and transcendent, holds the potential of any spiritual and material phenomena, just like the pollen, invisible to the eye, initially carries the forms of countless plants, herbs and flowers. The divinity emanates the Mind (Nous), and the Mind, in its turn, the Word (Logos), which, via the emanations (Virtue – Wisdom – Power), gives rise to two Archons (demiurges). One of them creates an ethereal world, i.e. higher sphere, and the second – lower, material world - Cosmos. These worlds which include 365 spheres (Abraxas, later repeatedly used in Christian and Jewish mysticism) move away from their creator and acquire their own life – distorted and devoid of divine balance. They are full of contradictions: evil and virtue, truth and lie, the sacred and the vile, pain and joy, birth and death intertwine inextricably in an amazing way. This is Abraxas – our world, and therefore it is so frightening in its inconceivability. “But Abraxas speaketh that hallowed and accursed word which is life and death at the same time. Abraxas begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness, in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible” (6).
The process of return to God starts when Archons’ sons, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, reverse the process of removal from divinity and return it its long-awaited peace and grandeur. All living things soar towards their origin to acquire the bliss within it. Basilides’ divine world obeys (an obvious borrowing from Pythagoras) the strict and majestic mathematical laws; his 365 spheres headed by their masters – Archons - reflect a complex and multidivisional system of interconnections which permeates the Universe.
Valentinus’ God is an inconceivable and unattainable substance: Depth or Abyss. God emanates paired aeons, each of which reflects a certain idea, some quality of the nature of Spirit: Mind (Nous) and Truth (Aletheia), Word and Life, etc. – all in all, “pleroma” from 30 aeons. The world spirit Sophia-Ahamot (“Fallen Sophia”), with which the divine drama that led to the creation of the world of flesh starts, completes the emanation process. Having taken it upon itself to approach the inconceivable Father, despite all the interdictions, it finds itself out of the bounds of “pleroma”.
Here is a poetic description of this epic drama: “All the spaces were shaken and confused, for they had no fixity nor stability. “Error” was agitated, not knowing what it should do. It was afflicted, and lamented and worried because it knew nothing”. (Gospel of Truth, 26:4-27).
The forfeit for the arrogance is cruel. In confusion and despair Sophia tries to go back, thus initiating an unpredictable and dangerous sequence of events. Reversion, turning to God gives birth to Demiurge (the Creator of the world); Sophia’s fears and disintegration – to material world, Cosmos; her spiritual purification from haughtiness and curiosity – to the particles of light, “pneuma” confined in human body as within a cell.
Sophia does not contrapose herself to “pleroma”, on the contrary, realising her mistake, she tries to return to the fold of divine harmony by any possible means, and the rest, in their turn, virtually participate in the resurrection of the higher order. The Universe is just a fruit of her torment, the reflection of chaos reigning in her soul. Demiurge created through her fault, though limited and flawed, is no more than divine aberration, and, at the end of the times, when Cosmos dissipates in time and space, he greets the tranquillity acquired by Depth beside the borders of “pleroma”. “Since Deficiency came into existence because they did not know the Father, so when they know the Father, Deficiency, at that same instant, disappears. As a person's ignorance, at the moment when he comes to know, disappears of its own accord; as darkness dissolves at the appearance of light; so also Deficiency is dissolved in the fact of Plenitude. (i.e., acquisition and circulation of the Knowledge)” (Gospel of Truth, 24:11-25:10).
In all cases the plots are similar. The material world appears as an “error” in the dwelling of Light, and Demiurge reminds the Creator of Jews with his features. He is absolutely not evil, not Satan, neither is he the torturer or the tempter. Not knowing the truth, he considers himself the ultimate truth and creates the world in his own image. He is blind but not through his own fault. Being part of “pleroma”, he is in love with Matter at the same time, and therefore his world is the interweaving of holiness and vice, love and malice, beauty and anomaly. He is trying to stop his creation from falling into the abyss by the strength of moral law, but this only intensifies the perversion of human existence.
The difference of descriptions is in the hues. Cerinthus regards the Jewish God-Creator and his commandments with certain affection and compassion – his Demiurge has the features of divine Logos of Philo of Alexandria.
Valentinus’ Demiurge “is unthinking and foolish, and knows not what he does and effects” and deserves rather pity than hate and fear.
“Although Demiurge thought that he had created this himself, he created the sky not knowing what the sky was; created Man not knowing what Man was; brought into the world the Earth not knowing what the Earth was, and in all things he also did not know the ideas of anything he created, nor did he know the Matter itself but instead used to think that all this was him”.
Ptolemy, the disciple of Valentinus, portrays his Demiurge as a limited but virtuous being who tries to return to people their spirituality with the help of his moral imperatives.
Ptolemy’s Demiurge appears to be more like Vrubel’s Demon: “It is not so much a wicked spirit as a suffering and sombre entity, but an imperious spirit nevertheless... the majestic being which demands deference and respect”.
On the contrary, Marcion’s Demiurge is endued with despotic features: he is cruel, vengeful and crazy. But he is still the part of a divine system.
In any case, the consequences of the chaos, which has come to life, are dramatic: the World and the Man, born of blindness and ignorance, find themselves in the enchanted circle of eternal “Oblivions and Terrors”.
“Error elaborated its own Matter in the Void, without knowing Truth. It applied itself to the fashioning of a formation, trying to produce in beauty a substitute of Truth. . . . Not having any root, it remained immersed in a fog with regard to the Father while it was engaged in preparing Works and Oblivions and Terrors in order to attract, with their help, those of the Middle and to imprison them”.
(Gospel of Truth, 17. 15-35)
1- Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:3:4
2- The Gospel of Truth was found in the Nag Hammadi codices; it was written between 140 and 180 by Valentinus.
3- Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:3:4
4- Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas"
5- Irenaeus, Against Heresies I: 26
6- Sermo III, "THE SEVEN SERMONS TO THE DEAD WRITTEN BY BASILIDES IN ALEXANDRIA" (published by C.G Jung in 1916)
I-2.1-b The saviour comes from “pleuroma”
“Psychics”, who live according to the determined religious order, are at the power of Demiurge. They have the freedom of choice – unlike the people of the flesh, “somatics/hylics”, who are completely incapable of grasping the divine on any level and live by the animal passions. And only “pneumatics” carrying in themselves a particle of light “are doomed” to be saved.
I-2.1-c Spirit and flesh
What kind of life should a person have who feels a celestial spark inside him and how should communal life be organised? Different Gnostic schools provided different, at times polar answers for this question: from extreme asceticism to boundless debauchery.
1- Clement of Alexandria: Stromata. Book II:
I-2.1-d Beyond good and evil
For all its variety, random nature, dissimilarity in composition, depth and intensiveness, Gnostics are united in their attitude to the material world. They despise it – this “vale of suffering” where everything is permeated with grief, misery, lies and injustice and where merciless Fate (Heimarmene) – and not the mind or the conscience – rules. By no means can such a world be the creation of higher forces. It is the work of lower, less perfect, distorted divine beings who are neither good nor bad in themselves and present just a derivate discord which has happened in the spiritual realm.
1 - Clement of Alexandria Excerpta ex Theodoto 78. 2;
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