Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
LET us now return to the early years of the second century, and devote our attention to Basilides and his Writings. Basilides and his followers ("them of Basilides") who elaborated one of the most abstruse and consistent systems of the Gnosis, the outlines of which are plainly recoverable from the garbled fragments that Patristic polemics have left us.
Of the life of this great doctor of the Gnosis we know nothing beyond the fact that he taught at Alexandria. His date is entirely conjectural; he is, however, generally supposed to have been immediately prior to Valentinus. If, therefore, we say that he flourished somewhere about A.D. 120-130, it should be understood that a margin of ten years or so either way has to be allowed for. Of his nationality again we know nothing. But whether he was Greek, or Egyptian, or Syrian, he was steeped in Hellenic culture, and learned in the wisdom of the Egyptians. He was also well versed in the Hebrew scriptures as set forth in the Greek version of the Seventy. The Gospel teaching was his delight, and he wrote no fewer than twenty-four books of commentaries thereon, although he does not appear to have used the subsequently canonical versions. He also quotes from several of the Pauline Letters.
Of the writings of Basilides the most important were the commentaries already referred to; they were the first commentaries on the Gospel-teachings written by a Christian philosopher; and in this, as
in all other departments of theology, the Gnostics led the way. Basilides is further said to have written a Gospel himself, and to have claimed to be the disciple of a certain Glaucias, who was an "interpreter of Peter." There is also mention of certain Traditions of Matthias, as held in great honour by the school. These purported to be teachings given to Matthias in secret by Jesus after the "resurrection." It may, therefore, be supposed that the Gospel of Basilides was not a new historical setting of the Sayings of the Lord, but an exposition of that "knowledge of supermundane things," which was the definition he gave to the Gospel. Basilides presumably wrote a commentary on the Sayings and Doings of the Lord, which were in general circulation in many traditions, with or without the various historical settings; and also his own elaboration of certain inner instructions that had been handed down by a secret tradition. Whether or not this inner Gospel formed part of the twenty-four books of his Exegetica is doubtful; most critics, however, are in favour of this view. In any case, it is to be supposed that his commentaries aimed at explaining the public Sayings and Parables by the light of this secret Gospel. But there is another hypothesis, which, if true, would be of intense interest. It is suggested that it was Matthias, one of the heads of the inner schools, who wrote the original sketch of Sayings and Doings underlying our Synoptic accounts, and that these accounts were expansions by various presbyters of the outer churches in Egypt. The original draft was presumably
a Life intended for public circulation, and designed to be capable of an interpretation according to the inner tenets of the Gnosis.
Basilides is also said to have written certain Odes, but of these no fragment has reached us.
Our main sources of information for recovering an outline of the Basilidian Gnosis are three in Our Sources of Information. number, and consist of the very fragmentary quotations: (i.) of Hippolytus in his later work, The Philosophumena; (ii.) of Clement of Alexandria in his Miscellanies; and (iii.) presumably in the first place (either of the lost Syntagma of Justin or) of the lost work of Agrippa Castor, who is said by Eusebius to have written a refutation of the views of Basilides in the reign of Hadrian (c. 133 A.D.), and whose very unsatisfactory and inaccurate data were copied by Irenæus, and the epitomators of the earlier, smaller, and now lost work of Hippolytus.
Turning to the great work of Hippolytus, we come upon the most valuable information extant for the reconstruction of this most highly metaphysical system. The Church Father had evidently before him a treatise of Basilides, but whether it was the Exegetica or not, is by no means clear; what is certain, however, is that it set forth the Gospel, or "knowledge of supermundane things," as Basilides understood it; and we can only regret that we have not the original text of the Gnostic doctor himself before us, instead of a most faulty copy of the text of the Church Father's Refutation, whose method is of the most provoking. Hippolytus muddles up his own glosses and criticisms with mutilated quotations,
imperfectly summarizes important passages, which treat of conceptions requiring the greatest subtlety and nicety of language; and in other respects does scant justice to a thinker whose faith in Christianity was so great, that, far from confining it to the narrow limits of a dogmatic theology, he would have it that the Gospel was also a universal philosophy explanatory of the whole world-drama.
Let us then raise our thoughts to those sublime heights to which the genius of Basilides soared so many centuries ago, when faith in the universal possibilities of the Glad Tidings was really living. And first we must rise to that stupendous intuition of Deity, which transcends even Being, and which to the narrow minds of earth seems pure nothingness, instead of being that which beggars all fullness. Beyond time, beyond space, beyond consciousness, beyond Being itself--
The Divinity Beyond Being."There was when naught was; nay, even that 'naught' was not aught of things that are [even in the world of reality]. But nakedly, conjecture and mental quibbling apart, there was absolutely not even the One [the Logos of the world of reality]. And when I use the term 'was,' I do not mean to say that it was [that is to say, in any state of being]; but merely to give some suggestion of what I wish to indicate, I use the expression 'there was absolutely naught.' For that 'naught' is not simply the so-called Ineffable; it is beyond that. For that which is really ineffable is not named Ineffable, but is superior to every name that is used.
"The names [we use] are not sufficient even for the [manifested] universe [which is outside the world of real being], so diversified is it; they fall short."
Much less, then, he continues to argue, can we find appropriate names for the beings of the world of reality and their operations; and far more impossible, therefore, is it to give names to That which transcends even reality. Thus we see that Basilides soared beyond even the ideal world of Plato, and ascended to the untranscendable intuition of the Orient--the That which cannot be named, to be worshipped in silence alone.
We next come to the inception of the Seed of Universality, in this state beyond being, a Universality Beyond Being. discrete stage, so to speak, beyond the unmanifested or noumenal world even.
Hippolytus summarizes this condition of non-being, which transcends all being from the original treatise as follows.
"Naught was, neither matter, nor substance, nor voidness of substance, nor simplicity, nor impossibility-of-composition, nor inconceptibility, nor imperceptibility, neither man, nor angel, nor god; in fine, neither anything at all for which man has ever found a name, nor any operation which falls within the range either of his perception or conception. Such, or rather far more removed from the power of man's comprehension, was the state of non-being, when [if we can speak of 'when' in a state beyond time and space] the Deity beyond being, without thinking, or feeling, or determining, or choosing, or
being compelled, or desiring, willed to create universality.
"When I use the term 'will,'" writes Basilides, "I do so merely to suggest the idea of an operation transcending all volition, thought, or sensible action. And this universality also was not [our] dimensional and differentiable universe, which subsequently came into existence and was separated [from other universes], but the Seed of all universes."
This is evidently the same concept as the Mūlaprakriti of Indian philosophy, and the most admirable statement of the dogma of the "creation out of nothing" that has been put forward by any Christian philosopher.
"This universal Seed contained everything in itself, potentially, in some such fashion as the grain of mustard seed contains the whole simultaneously in the minutest point--roots, stem, branches, leaves, and the innumerable germs that come from the seeds of the plant, and which in their turn produce still other and other plants in manifold series.
"Thus the Divinity beyond being created universality beyond being from elements beyond being, positing and causing to subsist a single something"--which poverty of language compels us to call a Seed, but which was really the potentiality of potentialities, seeing that it was "containing in itself the entire all-seed-potency of the universe." From such a "Seed," which is everywhere and nowhere, and which treasures in its bosom everything that was or is or is to be, all things must come into
manifestation in their "proper natures and cycles" and times, at the will of the Deity beyond all. How this is brought about is by no means clear. Basilides seems to have had some idea of a "supplementary development" (κατὰ προσθήκην αὐξανόμενα), which, however, is beyond definition; one thing is clear, that he entirely repudiated every idea of emanation, projection, or pullulation (προβολή).
"For of what sort of emanation is there need, or of what sort of matter must we make supposition, Ex Nihilo. in order that God should make the universe, like as a spider weaves its web [from itself], or mortal. man takes brass or timber or other matter out of which to make something? But 'He spake and it was,' and this is what is the meaning of the saying of Moses, 'Let there be light, and there was light.' Whence, then, was the light? From naught. For it is not written whence, but only from the voice of the Speaker of the word. And He who spake the word, was not; and that which was, was not. For the Seed of the universe, the word that was spoken, 'Let there be light,' was from the state beyond being. And this was what was spoken in the Gospel, 'It was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.' Man both deriveth his principles from that Seed and is also enlightened by it." This primordial Light and Life is the source of all things.
The next stage deals with the outcome, first-fruits, highest product, or sublimest consummation, of universal potentiality, which Basilides calls the Sonship.
The Sonship."In the absolute Seed there was a triple Sonship in every way consubstantial with the God beyond being, coming into being from the state beyond being. Of this triply divided Sonship, one aspect was the subtlest of the subtle, one less subtle, and one still stood in need of purification. The subtlest nature of the Sonship instantly and immediately, together with the depositing of the Seed of universality by the God beyond being, burst forth, rose aloft, and hastened from below upward, 'like wing or thought,' as Homer sings, and was with Him beyond being [πρὸς τὸν οὐκ ὄντα--"with,' the very same word as the mysterious preposition in the Proem now prefixed to the fourth canonical Gospel]. For every nature striveth after Him because of His transcendency of all beauty and loveliness, but some in one way and others in another.
"The less subtle nature of the Sonship, on the other hand, still remained within the universal Seed; for though it would imitate the higher and ascend, it could not, seeing that it fell short of the degree of subtlety of the first Sonship, which had ascended through it [the second], and so it remained behind. The less subtle Sonship, accordingly, had to find for itself as it were wings on which to soar, . . . and these wings are the Holy Spirit."
Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, and the wings cannot soar without the bird, so the second Sonship and the Holy Spirit are complementary the one to the other, and confer mutual benefits on one another.
We here see that Basilides is dealing with the second aspect of the Logos, the positive-negative state; we also perceive the anticipation of the ground of the great controversies which subsequently arose generations later, such as the Arian and the Filioque." But if we enquire whence was the Holy Spirit, Basilides will tell us, from the universal Seed, from which all things came forth under the will of Deity.
"The second Sonship, then, borne aloft by the Spirit, as by a wing, bears aloft the wing, that is the The Holy Sprit. Spirit; but on drawing nigh to the first Sonship and the God beyond being, who createth from the state beyond being. it could no longer keep the Spirit with it, for it [the Spirit] was not of the same substance with it, nor had it a nature like unto that of the Sonship. But just as a pure and dry atmosphere is unnatural and harmful to fish, so to the Holy Spirit was that state of the Sonship together with the God beyond being--that state more ineffable than every ineffable and transcending every name.
"The Sonship, therefore, left it [the Spirit] behind near that Blessed Space, which can neither be conceived of, nor characterized by any word, yet not entirely deserted nor yet divorced from the Sonship. But even as the sweetest smelling unguent poured. into a vessel, though the vessel be emptied of it with the greatest possible care, nevertheless some scent of the unguent still remains and is left behind--the vessel retains the scent of the unguent, though it no longer holds the unguent itself--in such a way has
the Holy Spirit remained emptied and divorced from the Sonship, yet at the same time retaining in itself as it were the power of the unguent, the savour of the Sonship. And this is the saying, 'Like the unguent on the head which ran down unto Aaron's beard'--the savour of the Holy Spirit permeating from above and below even as far as the formlessness [crude matter] and our state of existence, whence the [remaining] Sonship received its first impulse to ascend, borne aloft as it were on the wings of an eagle. For all things hasten from below upward, from worse to better, nor is anything in the better condition so bereft of intelligence as to plunge downward. But as yet this third Sonship still remains in the great conglomeration of the seed-mixture, conferring and receiving benefits," in a manner that will receive subsequent explanation.
The Holy Spirit, which in reality permeates everything, but phenomenally separates the sensible universe from the noumenal, constitutes what Basilides terms the Limitary Spirit, midway between things cosmic and supercosmic. This Firmament is far beyond the visible firmament whose locus is the moon's track.
The Great Ruler."After this, from the universal Seed and conglomeration of seed-mixture there burst forth and came into existence the Great Ruler, the head of the sensible universe, a beauty and magnitude and potency that naught can destroy." This is the demiurge; but let no mortal think that he can comprehend so great a being, "for he is more ineffable than ineffables, more potent than potencies,
wiser than the wise, superior to every excellence that one can name.
"Coming into existence he raised himself aloft, and soared upward, and was borne above in all his entirety as far as the Great Firmament. There he remained, because he thought there was none above him, and so he became the most potent power of the universe," save only the third Sonship which yet remained in the seed-mixture. His limit, therefore, was his own ignorance of the supercosmic spaces, although his wisdom was the greatest of all in the cosmic realms.
"Thus thinking himself lord, and ruler, and a wise master-builder, he betook himself to the creation of the creatures of the universe."
This is the supercelestial or ætherial creation, which has its physical correspondence in the spaces beyond the moon; below the moon was our world and its "atmosphere." This atmosphere (the sublunary regions) terminated at the visible heaven, or lower firmament, its periphery, marked by the moon's path. In the sun-space lay the ætherial realms, which apparently no mortal eye has seen, but only the reflection of their inhabitants, the stars, in the surface of the sublunary waters of space.
The ætherial creation of the Great Ruler proceeds on the theory of similarity and analogy.
"First of all the Great Ruler, thinking it not right that he should be alone, made for himself, and The Ætherial Creation. brought into existence from the universal Seed, a Son far better and wiser than himself. For all this
had been predetermined by the God beyond being, when He deposited the universal Seed.
"And the Great Ruler, on beholding his Son, was struck with wonder and love and amazement at his marvellously great beauty, and he caused him to sit at his right hand." And this space where is the throne of the Great Ruler they called the Ogdoad. "And the Great Demiurgos, the wise one, fabricated the whole ætherial creation with his own hand; but it was his Son, who was wiser still, who infused energy into him and suggested to him ideas."
That is to say, that the Great Ruler made the creatures of the ætherial spaces, and these evolved souls, or rather were ensouled. And thus it is that the son is, as it were, greater than the father, and sits on his right hand, or above him; the right hand in Gnostic symbolism signifying a higher condition. They mutually confer benefits also, one giving the body and the other the mind or soul to ætherial beings. All ætherial spaces then, down to the moon, are provided for and managed by the Son of the Great Ruler, the consummation or perfection of his evolution or creation.
The Sublunary Spaces."Next, there arose a second Ruler from the universal Seed, far inferior to the first, but greater than all below him, except the Sonship which still remained in the Seed." This was the Ruler of the sublunary spaces, from the moon to the earth. This Ruler is called effable, because men can speak of him with understanding, and the space over which he rules is named the Hebdomad. And the second Ruler also "brought
forth a Son far greater than himself from the universal Seed, in like manner to the first," and the lower creation was ordered in the same manner as the higher. This lower creation is apparently still one of subtle matter.
As to the earth, the conglomeration of the seed-mixture is still in our own stage or space, and the things that come to pass in this state of existence, "come to pass according to nature, as having been primarily uttered by Him who hath planned the fitting time and form and manner of utterance of the things that were to be uttered. Of things here on the earth, then, there is no special chief or manager or creator, for sufficient for them is that plan which the God beyond being laid down when He deposited the universal Seed."
That is to say, that the earth-stage is the moment between the past and future, the turning-point of all choice, the field of new karman; here all things verily are in the hand of God alone, in the highest sense. Thus does Basilides avoid the difficulties both of fate and free-will absolute.
We next come to the soteriology of Basilides, the redemption and restoration of all things.
"When, then, the supercosmic planes and the whole universe [ætherial, sublunary, and terrestrial] Soteriology. were completed, and there was no deficiency," that is to say, when the evolutionary stream of creative energy began to return on itself, there still remained behind in the universal Seed the third Sonship, which bestows and receives benefits.
"But it needs must be that this Sonship also
should be manifested, and restored to its place above, there beyond the highest Firmament, the Limitary Spirit of cosmos, with the most subtle Sonship, and the second which followed the example of its fellow, and the God beyond being, even as it was written, 'And the creation itself groaneth together and travaileth together, waiting for the manifestation of the Sons of God'"--the third Sonship.
The Sons of God are the divine sparks, the real spiritual men within, who have been left behind here in the seed-mixture, "to order and inform and correct and perfect our souls, which have a natural tendency downwards to remain in this state of existence."
Before the Gospel was preached, and the Gnosis came, the Great Ruler of the Ogdoad was considered even by the most spiritual among men to be the only God, nevertheless no name was given to him, because he was ineffable.
The inspiration of Moses, however, came from the Hebdomad only, as may be seen from the words, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the name of God I did not make known unto them." This God to whom Moses and the Prophets gave names, was of the Hebdomad, which is effable, and their inspiration came from this source. But the Gospel was that Mystery which was ever unknown, not only to the nations, but also to them of the Hebdomad and the Ogdoad, and even to their Rulers.
"When, therefore, the time had come," says the
[paragraph continues] Gnostic doctor, "for the revelation of the children of God (who are ourselves), for whom the whole The Mystic Gospel. creation groaneth and travaileth in expectation, the Gospel [the Glad Tidings, the Gnosis] came into the universe, and passed through every principality, and authority, and lordship, and every title that man can use. It 'came' of very truth, not that anything 'came down' from above, or that the blessed Sonship 'departed from' that Blessed God beyond being, who transcends all thought. Nay, but just as the vapour of naphtha can catch fire from a flame a great way off from the naphtha, so do the powers of men's spirit pass from below from the formlessness of the conglomeration up to the Sonship.
"The Son of the Great Ruler of the Ogdoad, catching fire as it were, lays hold of and seizes on the ideas from the blessed Sonship beyond the Limitary Spirit. For the power of the Sonship which is in the midst of the Holy Spirit, in the Limit Space, shares the flowing and rushing thoughts of the [supreme] Sonship with the Son of the Great Ruler.
"Thus the Gospel first came from the Sonship through the Son who sits by the Great Ruler, to that Ruler; and the Ruler learned that he was not the God over all, but a generable deity, and that above him was set the Treasure of the ineffable and unnameable That beyond being and of the Sonship. And he repented and feared on understanding in what ignorance he had been. This is the meaning of the words, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.' For he began to grow wise through the
instruction of the Christ sitting by him, learning what is That beyond being, what the Sonship, what the Holy Spirit, what the apparatus of the universe what the manner of its restoration. This is the 'wisdom, declared in a mystery,' concerning which Scripture uses the words, 'Not in words taught of human wisdom, but in those taught of the Spirit.'
"The great Ruler, then, being instructed and taught and made afraid, confessed the sin which he had done in boasting himself. This is the saying, 'I have recognized my sin, and I know my transgression, and I will confess it for the eternity.'
"After the instruction of the Great Ruler, the whole space of the Ogdoad was instructed and taught, and the Mystery became known to the powers above the heavens.
"Then was it that the Gospel should come to the Hebdomad, that its Ruler might be instructed and evangelized in like manner. Thereupon the Son of the Great Ruler lit up in the Son of the Ruler of the lower space, the Light which he himself had had kindled in him from above from the Sonship; and thus the Son of the Ruler of the Hebdomad was illumined, and preached the Gospel to the Ruler, who in his turn, like as the Great Ruler before him, feared and confessed [his sin]. And then all things in the sublunary spaces were enlightened and had the Gospel preached unto them.
The Sons of God."Therefore the time was ripe for the illumination of the formlessness of our own world, and for the Mystery to be revealed to the Sonship which had been left behind in the formlessness, as it
were to one born out of due time (an abortion)--'the mystery which was not known unto former generations,' as it is written, 'By revelation was the mystery made known unto me,' and 'I heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter.'
"Thus, from the Hebdomad, the Light--which had already come down from above from the Ogdoad unto the Son of the Hebdomad--descended upon Jesus, son of Mary, and he was illumined, being caught on fire in harmony with the Light that streamed into him. This is the meaning of the saying, 'The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee'--that is to say, that which came from the Sonship through the Limitary Spirit to the Ogdoad and Hebdomad, down as far as Mary [the body]--and 'The Power of the Highest shall overshadow thee'--that is to say, the divine creative power which cometh from the [ætherial] heights above through the Demiurgos, which power belongeth to the Son."
The text of Hippolytus is here exceedingly involved, and he evidently did not seize the thought of Basilides. The "Son" apparently means the soul. The power belongs to the soul and not to Mary--the body; the divine creative power making of man a god, whereas the body can only exercise the power of physical procreation. Moreover, Jesus seems to stand for a type of every member of the Sonship, every Son of God.
"For the world shall hold together and not be dissolved until the whole Sonship--which has been
left behind to benefit the souls in the state of formlessness, and to receive benefits, by evolving forms for them [the spirit requiring a psychic vehicle for conscious contact with this plane]--shall follow after and imitate Jesus, and hasten upward and come forth purified. [For by purification] it becometh most subtle, so that it is able to speed aloft through its own power, even as the first Sonship; for it hath all its power naturally consubsistent with the Light which shone down from above.
The Final Consummation."When, then, the whole Sonship shall have ascended, and passed beyond the Great Limit, the Spirit, then shall the whole creation become the object of the Great Mercy; for it groaneth until now and suffereth pain and awaiteth the manifestation of the Sons of God, namely that all the men of the Sonship may ascend beyond it [the creation]. And when this shall be effected, God will bring upon the whole universe the Great Ignorance [Mahā-pralaya], in order that all things may remain in their natural condition, and nothing long for anything which is contrary to its nature.
"Thus all the souls of this state of existence, whose nature is to remain immortal in this state of existence alone, remain without knowledge of anything different from or better than this state; nor shall there be any rumour or knowledge of things superior in higher states, in order that the lower souls may not suffer pain by striving after impossible objects, just as though it were fish longing to feed on the mountains with sheep,
for such a desire would end in their destruction. All things are indestructible if they remain in their proper condition, but subject to destruction if they desire to overleap and transgress their natural limits.
"Thus the Ruler of the Hebdomad shall have no knowledge of the things above him, for the Great Ignorance shall take hold of him also, so that sorrow and pain and lamentation may go from him. He shall desire naught of things impossible for him to attain, and thus shall suffer no grief.
"And in like manner the Great Ignorance shall seize upon the Great Ruler of the Ogdoad, and also upon all the [ætherial] creations which are subject to him in similar fashion, so that nothing may long after anything contrary to nature and thus suffer pain.
"And thus shall be the restoration of all things, which have had their foundations laid down according to nature in the Seed of the universe in the beginning, and which will all be restored [to their original nature] in their appointed cycles.
"And that everything has its proper cycle and time, the Saviour is sufficient witness in the saying, 'My hour hath not yet come,' and also the Magi in their observation of His star. For He also was foreordained in the Seed to be subject to the nativity of the stars and the return of the time-periods to their starting places."
Now the Saviour, according to the Basilidian Gnosis, was the perfected spiritual "man," within
the psychic and animal man or soul. And when a man reaches this stage of perfection, the Sonship in him leaves the soul behind here, "the soul being no longer mortal but remaining in its natural state [that is to say, having become immortal], just as the first Sonship [left behind] the Holy Spirit, the Great Limit, in its proper space or region"; for it is only then on reaching perfection, that the real "man" is "clothed with a proper [and really immortal] soul."
Jesus.Every part of the creation goes up a stage, and the whole scheme of salvation is effected by the separating from their state of conglomeration the various principles into their proper states; and Jesus was the first-fruits, or great exemplar, of this process.
"Thus his physical part down here--which belongs to formless matter--alone suffered, and was restored to the formless state. His psychic vesture or vehicle--which belongs to the Hebdomad--arose and was restored to the Hebdomad. That vehicle in him which was of the nature of the height of the Great Ruler he raised aloft, and it remained with the Great Ruler. Moreover he raised still higher that which was of the nature of the Great Limit, and it remained in the Limitary Spirit. And it was thus through him that the third Sonship was purified, the Sonship left behind in the state of mixture [or impurity] for the purpose of helping and being helped, and it passed upwards through all of these purified principles unto the blessed Sonship above,"
The main idea at the back of this system is the separating forth, classification or restoration of the various elements or principles confused in the original world-seed, or universal plasm, into their proper natures, by a process of purification which brought unto men the Gnosis or perfection of consciousness. Man was the crown of the world-process, and the perfected man, the Christ, the Saviour, was the crown of manhood, and therefore the manifestation of Deity, the Sonship.
So far Hippolytus, who in all probability gives us the outline of the true Basilidian system. It was only in 1851 that The Philosophumena were published to the world, after the discovery of the MS. in one of the libraries on Mount Athos in 1842; prior to this nothing but the short and garbled sketches of Irenæus and the Epitomators was known of this great Gnostic's sublime speculations. The Philosophumena account has revolutionized all prior views, and changed the whole enquiry, so that the misrepresentations of Irenæus, or those of his prior authority, are now referred to as "the spurious Basilidian system." To this we shall refer later on. Meantime let us turn to Clement of Alexandria, who deals purely with the ethical side of the Basilidian Gnosis, and therefore does not touch the "metaphysical" part--using the term "metaphysical" in the Aristotelian sense, namely, of things beyond the Hebdomad, the things of the Hebdomad or sublunary space being called "physics" or in the domain of physis or nature.
As to marriage, Basilides and his son Isidorus
taught that it was natural but not necessary, and seem to have taken a moderate ground between the compulsory asceticism of some schools and the glorification of procreation by the Jews, who taught that "he who is without a wife is no man."
As to the apparently undeserved sufferings of martyrs, Basilides, basing himself on the doctrines of reincarnation and karman, writes as follows in Book xxiii. of his Exegetica:
Karman and Reincarnation."I say that all those who fall into these so-called tribulations, are people who, only after transgressing in other matters without being discovered, are brought to this good end [martyrdom] by the kindness of Providence, so that, the offences they are charged with being quite different from those they have committed without discovery, they do not suffer as criminals for proved offences, reviled as adulterers or murderers, but suffer merely for being Christians; which fact is so consoling to them that they do not even appear to suffer. And even though it should happen that one comes to suffer without previously committing any outward transgression--a very rare case--he will not suffer at all through any plot of any [evil] power, but in exactly the same way as the babe who apparently has done no ill.
"For just as the babe, although it has done no wrong previously, or practically committed any sin, and yet has the capacity of sin in it [from its former lives], when it suffers, is advantaged and reaps many benefits which otherwise are difficult to
gain; in just the selfsame way is it with the perfectly virtuous man also who has never sinned in deed, for he has still the tendency to sin in him; he has not committed actual sin [in this life], because he has not as yet been placed in the necessary circumstances. In the case even of such a man we should not be right in supposing entire freedom from sin. For just as it is the will to commit adultery which constitutes the adulterer, even though he does not find the opportunity of actually committing adultery, and the will to commit murder constitutes the murderer, although he may not be actually able to effect his purpose; for just this reason if I see such a 'sinless' man suffering [the pains of martyrdom], even if he has actually done no sin, I shall say that he is evil in so far as he has still the will to transgress. For I will say anything rather than that Providence is evil."
Moreover, even if the example of Jesus were to be flung in his face by those who preferred miracle to law, the sturdy defender of the Gnosis says that he should answer: "If you permit, I will say, He has not sinned; but was like a babe suffering." And if he were pressed even more closely, he would say: "The man you name is man, but God [alone] is righteous; for 'no one is pure from pollution,'" as Job said.
Men suffer, says Basilides, from their deeds in former lives; the "elect" soul suffers "honourably" through martyrdom, but souls of another nature by other appropriate punishments. The "elect" soul is evidently one that will suffer for an ideal; in other
words it is possessed of faith, which is the "assent of the soul to any of the things which do not excite sensation such a soul, then, "discovers doctrines without demonstration by an intellective apprehension."
The vulgar superstition of transmigration, the passing of a human soul into the body of an animal--so often confused by the uninstructed with the doctrine of reincarnation, which denies such a possibility--received a rational explanation at the hand of the Basilidian school. It arose from a consideration of the animal nature in man, the animal soul, or body of desire, the ground in which the passions inhere; the doctrine being thus summarized by Clement:
The Theory of "Appendages.""The Basilidians are accustomed to give the name of appendages [or accretions] to the passions. These essences, they say, have a certain substantial existence, and are attached to the rational soul, owing to a certain turmoil and primitive confusion."
The word translated essences is literally "spirits"; curiously enough the whole animal soul is called the "counterfeit spirit" in the Pistis Sophia treatise, and in The Timæus of Plato the same idea is called "turmoil," as may be seen from the commentary of Proclus. The primitive confusion is of course the chaotic conglomeration of the universal seed-mixture, and the differentiation of the "elemental essence" of some modern writers on theosophy.
"On to this nucleus other bastard and alien natures of the essence grow, such as those of the wolf, ape, lion, goat, etc. And when the peculiar qualities of
such natures appear round the soul, they cause the desires of the soul to become like to the special natures of these animals, for they imitate the actions of those whose characteristics they bear. And not only do human souls thus intimately associate themselves with the impulses and impressions of irrational animals, but they even imitate the movements and beauties of plants, because they likewise bear the characteristics of plants appended to them. Nay, there are also certain characteristics [of minerals] shown by habits, such as the hardness of adamant."
But we are not to suppose that man is composed of several souls, and that it is proper for man to yield to his animal nature, and seek excuse for his misdeeds by saying that the foreign elements attached to him have compelled him to sin; far from it, the choice is his, the responsibility is his, the rational soul's. Thus in his book, On an Appended Soul, Isidorus, son of Basilides, writes:
"Were I to persuade anyone that the real soul is not a unit, but that the passions of the wicked Moral Responsibility. are occasioned by the compulsion of the appended natures, no common excuse then would the worthless of mankind have for saying, 'I was compelled, I was carried away, I did it without wishing to do so, I acted unwillingly'; whereas it was the man himself who led his desire towards evil, and refused to battle with the constraints of the appendages. Our duty is to show ourselves rulers over the inferior creation within us, gaining the mastery by means of our rational principle."
In other words, the man is the same man, no
matter in what body or vesture he may be; the vestures are not the man.
One of the greatest festivals of the school was the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus on the fifteenth day of the Egyptian month Tobe or Tybi. "They of Basilides," says Clement, "celebrate His Baptism by a preliminary night-service of readings; and they say that 'the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar' means the fifteenth day of the month Tybi." It was then that the Father "in the likeness of a dove"--which they explained as meaning the Minister or Holy Spirit--came upon Him.
In "the fifteenth [year] of Tib[erius]" we have, then, perhaps an interesting glimpse into the workshop of the "historicizers."
It is evident, therefore, that the Basilidians did not accept the accounts of the canonical gospels literally, as Hippolytus claims; on the contrary, they explained such incidents as historicized legends of initiation, the process of which is magnificently worked out in the Pistis Sophia treatise, to which I must refer the reader for further information.
A Trace of Zoroastrianism.We learn from Agrippa Castor, as preserved by Eusebius, that Basilides imposed a silence of five years on his disciples, as was the custom in the Pythagorean school, and that he and his school set great store by the writings of a certain Barcabbas and Barcoph, and by other books of Orientals. Scholars are of opinion that Barcabbas and Barcoph, and their variants, point to the cycle of Zoroastrian literature which is now lost, but which was in great favour among many Gnostic
communities. It must have been that among the learned Jews and Essenes, after the return from Babylonia, and also among the theosophically minded of the time, the traditions of the Magi and of the great Iranian faith were an important part of eclectic and syncretistic religion. The Avesta-literature that has come down to us is said to be a recovery front memory of a very small portion of the great library of Persepolis, destroyed by the "accursed Alexander," as Pārsī tradition has it. And it seems exceedingly probable, as Cumont has shown in his just-published monumental work on the subject, that the Mithriac mystery-tradition contains as authentic a tradition as the Pārsī line of descent, and throws a brilliant light on the Zoroastrianism with which Gnosticism was in contact.
Such, then, is all that can be deduced of the real Basilidian system from the writings of Hippolytus and Clemens Alexandrinus, who respectively selected only such points as they thought themselves capable of refuting; that is to say, such features of the system as they considered most erroneous. To the student of comparative religion it is evident that both Church Fathers misunderstood the tenets they quoted, seeing that even such hostilely selected passages easily fall into the general scheme of universal theosophy, once they are taken out of the setting of Patristic refutation, and allowed to stand on their own merits. It is therefore a matter of deep regret that the writings of the school have been lost or destroyed; they would doubtless have thrown
much light not only on Christian theosophy but also on the obscure history of the origins.
The Spurious System.It now remains for us to refer briefly to the "spurious" Basilidian system. The following points are taken from Irenæus and the epitomators, and are another proof of the unreliability of Irenæus, the sheet-anchor of orthodox hæresiology. The series of writers and copyists to which we refer, had evidently no first-hand information of the teaching of Basilides, and merely retailed whatever fantastic notions popular rumour and hearsay attributed to the school.
The main features of the confection thus brewed are as follows. The God of the Basilidians, they said, was a certain Abraxas or Abrasax, who was the ruler of their first heaven, of which heavens there were no less than 365. This power was so denominated because the sum of the numerical values of the Greek letters in the name Abrasax came to 365, the number of days in the year.
We learn, however, from Hippolytus (II.) that this part of the system had to do with a far lower stage of creation than the God beyond all. It is not, however, clear whether the Abrasax idea is to be identified with the Great Ruler of the Ogdoad, or the Ruler of the Hebdomad and the region of the "proasteioi up to the æther." In any case the 365 "heavens" pertained to the astrological and genetical considerations of Egyptian and Chaldæan occult science, and represented from one point of view the 365 "aspects" of the heavenly bodies (during the year), as reflected on the surface of
the earth's "atmosphere" or envelope, which extended as far as the moon.
Now it is curious to notice that in the Pistis Sophia treatise the mysteries of embryology are consummated by a hierarchy of elemental powers, or builders, 365 in number, who follow the dictates of the karmic law, and fashion the new body in accordance with past deeds. The whole is set forth in great detail, and also the astrological scheme of the one ruler of the four, which in their turn each rule over ninety, making in all 365 powers.
Not till Schwartze translated this treatise from the Coptic, in 1853, was any certain light thrown on the Abrasax idea, and this just two years after Miller in 1851 published his edition of The Philosophumena, and thus supplied the material for proving that the hitherto universal opinion that the "Abrasax" was the Basilidian name for the God over all, was a gross error based on ignorance or misrepresentation. It is also to be noticed that the ancient anonymous treatise which fills the superior MS. of the Codex Brucianus, makes great use of the number 365 among its endless hierarchies, but nowhere mentions the name Abrasax.
The elemental forces which fashion the body are the lowest servants of the karmic law. It was presumably these lowest powers that made up the Abrasax of the populace. The God over all is the supreme ruler of an endless galaxy of rulers, gods, archangels, authorities, and powers, all of them superior to the 365.
In fact the mysteries of the unseen world were
so intricate in detail, that even those who devoted their lives to them with unwearied constancy could scarcely understand some of the lower processes, although the general idea was simple enough; and thus Basilides imposed a silence of five years on his disciples, and declared that "only one out of 1,000, and two out of 10,000," could really receive the Gnosis, which was the consummation of many lives of effort. Curiously enough this very phrase is also found in the Pistis Sophia treatise.
The term Abrasax is well known to students of Gnosticism, because of the number of gems on which it is found, and which are attributed to the followers of Basilides; in addition to the great Continental scholars who have treated the matter, in this country King has devoted much of his treatise to the subject. The best and latest authorities, however, are of opinion "that there is no tangible evidence for attributing any known gems to Basilidianism or any other form of Gnosticism."
Abrasax.In fact, in the Abrasax matter, as in all other things, Gnosticism followed its natural tendency of going "one better," to use a colloquialism, on every form of belief, or even superstition. Doubtless the ignorant populace had long before believed in Abrasax as the great power which governed birth and everyday affairs, according to astrological notions; talismans, invocations, and the rest of the apparatus which the vulgar mind ever clamours for in some form or other, were all inscribed with this potent "name of power." Behind the superstition, however, there lay certain occult facts,
of the real nature of which, of course, the vulgar astrologers and talisman-makers were naturally ignorant. There facts, however, seem to have been known to the doctors of the Gnosis, and they accordingly found the proper place for them in their universal systems. Thus Abrasax, the Great God of the ignorant, was placed among the lower hierarchies of the Gnosis, and the popular idea of him was assigned to the lowest building powers of the physical body.
As to the rest of the "spurious system" there is nothing of interest to record; we cannot, however, omit the silliest tale told against the Basilidians, which was as follows. They are said to have believed that at the crucifixion Jesus changed bodies with Simon of Cyrene, and then, when his substitute hung in agony, stood and mocked at those he had tricked--with which cock-and-bull story we may come out of the Irenæic "store-house of Gnosticism" for a breathing space.
Of the history of the school we know nothing beyond the fact that Epiphanius, at the end of the fourth century, still met with students of the Basilidian Gnosis in the nomes west of the Delta, from Memphis to the sea. It seems more probable, however, that the school continued in the main stream of Gnosticism of the latter half of the second century, and was at the back of the great Valentinian movement of which we have next to treat. Indeed it is very probable that the followers of this, the main stream of the Gnosis, would have warmly resented being classed as "them of Basilides" or "them of
[paragraph continues] Valentinus"; they doubtless regarded these teachers as handers-on of a living tradition, each in his own way, and not as severally inspired revealers of new doctrines.