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THE COMMENCEMENT OF GNOSTICISM.
At this period Christianity was a newborn child, and when it emerged from its swaddling-clothes, a most dangerous sort of croup threatened to choke it. The root of this illness was partly internal, partly external, and in some respects the child had been born with the germs of it. In a great measure, however, the illness came from without, and the unhealthy locality in which the young Church dwelt caused it a sort of poisoning to which it very nearly succumbed.
As the Church grew more numerous and began to develop a hierarchy, the docility and self-denial of the faithful began to have its merit. It seemed to be irksome to walk like a lost sheep amongst the close ranks of the whole herd, and so men wished to leave the crowd and have rules for themselves: the universal law seemed to be a very commonplace matter. In all directions small aristocracies were formed in the Church which threatened to rend the seamless robe of Christ, and two of them were marked by rare originality. One was the aristocracy of piety, Montanism; the other, the aristocracy of science, was Gnosticism.
This latter was the first to develop itself. To minds that were initiated into the philosophical subtleties of the times, the ideas and the government of the Church must have appeared very humble, for the via media of relative good sense to which orthodoxy adhered did not suit all men’s minds, and refined intellects asserted that they had loftier ideas about the dogmas and the life of Jesus than the vulgar herd who took matters literally, and gave themselves up without reasoning to the direction of their pastors; and sublimity of doctrine was sought, whereas 76it ought to have been received with the cheerfulness of a pure heart, and embraced with a simple faith.
Jesus and his immediate disciples had altogether neglected that part of the human intellect which desires to know; with knowledge they had nothing to do, and they only addressed themselves to the heart and the imagination. Cosmology, psychology, and even lofty theological speculations, were a blank page for them, and very likely they were right. It was not the part of Christianity to satisfy any vain curiosity; it came to console those who suffer, to touch the fibres of moral sense, and to bring man into relation not with some one or abstract logos, but with a heavenly Father full of kindness, who is the author of all the harmonies and of all the joys of the universe. Especially towards the end of his life St Paul felt the want of a speculative theology, and his ideas became assimilated to those of Philo, who a century before had striven to impart a rationalistic turn of mind to Judaism. About the same time the Churches of Asia Minor launched forth into a sort of cabala which connected the part of Jesus with a chimerical ontology and an indefinite series of avatars. The school from which the fourth Gospel sprung felt the same need of explaining the miracles of Galilee by theology, and so Jesus became the Divine logos made flesh, and the altogether Jewish idea of the future appearing of the Messiah was replaced by the theory of the Paraclete. Cerinthus obeyed an analogous tendency. At Alexandria this thirst for metaphysics was even more pronounced, and produced strange results, which it is time for us to study now.
In that city a crude and unwholesome mass of all theologies and all cosmogonies had been formed, which, however, was often traversed by rays of genius, and which was a doctrine that set up the 77pretension of having discovered the formula of the absolute, and gave himself the ambiguous title of Gnosis—“perfect science.” The man who was initiated into the chimerical doctrine was called Gnosticos—the man of perfect knowledge. At that time, Alexandria was, after Rome, the spot where men’s minds were in the most unsettled state. Frivolity and superficial eclecticism produced altogether unforeseen effects, and everything got mixed up together in those wild and fantastic brains. Thanks to an often unconscious charlatanism, the weightiest problems of life were turned into mere cases of filching, and every question about God and the world were solved by juggling with words and hollow formulas, and real science was dispensed with by tricks of legerdemain. It must be remembered that the great scientific institutions founded by the Ptolomies had disappeared or fallen into complete decay, and the only guide which can prevent mankind from talking nonsense—that is, exact science—existed no longer.
Philosophy did exist still, and was trying to raise its head again, but great minds were scarce. Platonism had gained the upper hand over all the other Greek systems in Egypt, and in Syria, which was a great misfortune, for Platonism is always dangerous, unless corrected by a scientific education. There were no more any men of taste refined enough to appreciate the wonderful art in Plato’s Dialogues, for most received those charming philosophical fancies in a clumsy spirit; but instruction such as they conveyed, which rather satisfied the imagination than the reason, would please Eastern ideas. The germ of mysticism which they contained made its impress on those races who could not receive pure and simple rationalism. Christianity followed the general fashion, and already Philo had sought to make Platonism the philosophy of Judaism, and 78those Fathers of the Church who had any weight were Platonists.
To accommodate itself to this unnatural fusion, Greek genius, healthy and intelligible as it was, had to make many sacrifices. Philosophers were to believe in ecstasies, in miracles, in supernatural relations between God and man. Plato becomes a theosophist and a mystagogue, and the invocation of good spirits is taken as a serious matter, and whilst the scientific spirit disappears altogether, that habit of mind which was fortified by mysteries begins to gain the upper hand. In those small religious assemblies of Eleusius and Thrace, where men were in the habit of throwing dust into their own eyes so as to imagine that they knew the unknowable, it was already asserted that the body was the prison of the soul, that the actual world was a decadence from the divine world; teaching was divided into esoteric and exoteric, and men into spiritual, animal, and material beings. The habit of clothing doctrine in a mythical form after the manner of Plato, and of explaining ancient texts allegorically after the manner of Philo, became general. The highest bliss was to be initiated into pretended secrets, into a superior gnosis. These ideas of a chimerical intellectual aristocracy daily gained ground. and the truth was looked upon as a privilege reserved for a small number of the initiated, and thus every master became a charlatan who sought to increase the number of his customers by selling them the secret of the absolute.
The fields of the propaganda of the gnosis and of Christianity in Alexandria were very closely allied. Gnostics and Christians resembled each other in their ardent wish to penetrate into religious mysteries without any positive science, of which they were both equally ignorant, and this brought about their sublime amalgamation. On the one hand, the Gnostics, who alleged that they embraced every belief, and accustomed 79as they were to look upon the gods of the nations as divine æons much inferior to the supreme God, wished to understand Christianity, and received Jesus enthusiastically as an incarnate æon to be placed side by side with so many others, giving him a chief place in their formulae of the philosophies of history. On the other hand, Christians who had any intellectual requirements, and who wished to attach the Gospel to some system of philosophy, found what they required in the obscure metaphysics of the Gnostics. Then there happened something quite analogous to what happened about fifty years ago, when a certain philosophical system, whose programme, like that of Gnosticism, was to explain everything, and to understand everything, adopted Christianity, and proclaimed itself to be Christian in a superior sense, and Catholic and Protestant theologians might be seen at the same time adopting a number of philosophical ideas which they thought were compatible with their theology, because they did not wish to appear strange to their century.
The Fathers of the Church insist upon it that all this rank and poisonous growth had its origin in the Samaritan sects which sprang from Simon of Gitto (Simon Magus), and he certainly seems already to have presented most of the features which characterise Gnosticism. The Great Announcement, which he certainly did not write himself, but which most likely represents his doctrines, is an altogether Gnostic work. His followers Menander, Cleobius, and Dosistheus seem to have had the same views, and all Catholic writers make Menander to be the father of all the great Gnostics of Hadrian’s time. If we are to believe Plotinus on the other hand, a travestied and disfigured Platonic philosophy was the only origin of Gnosticism. Such explanations appear to be altogether insufficient to account for such a complicated fact. There were Christian, Jewish, Samaritan 80Gnostics, but there were also non-Christian Gnostics. Plotinus, who wrote a whole book against them, never imagined that he had anything to do with a Christian sect. The systems of the Samaritan Gnostics, those of Basilides, of Valentinus, of Saturninus, present such shrinking similarities that one must suppose that they have a common origin, though they do not seem to have borrowed from each other. They must therefore have dipped into an earlier source, to which Philo, Apollos, and St Paul, when he wrote his Epistle to the Colossians, contributed, and from which the Jewish cabala also seems to have proceeded.
It is an impossible task to unravel all that contributed to the formation of that strange religious philosophy. Neo-platonism, a tissue of poetical dreams, the ideas that men had in consequence of apocryphal traditions about Pythagorism, already supplied models for a mythical philosophy bordering on religion. About the very time when Basilides, Valentinus, and Saturninus were developing their dreams, one of Hadrian’s pensioned orators, Philo of Byblos, gave to the world the old Phœnician theogonies, mixed up as it seems with the Jewish cabala, under a form of divine genealogies which were very analogous to those of the first Gnostics. The Egyptian religion, which was still in a very flourishing state, with its mysterious ceremonies and its striking symbols, Greek mysteries and classical polytheism interpreted in an allegorical sense. Orphism, with its empty formulas; Brahminism, which had become a theory of endless emanations; Buddhism, oppressed by the dream of an expiatory existence, and by its myriads of Buddhas; ancient Persian Dualism, which was so contagious, and to which perhaps the ideas of the Messiah and of the millenium owed their first existence, all these in turn appeared as profound and seductive dogmas to the imaginations of men who were beside themselves 81between hopes and fears. India, and, above all, Buddhism, were known in Alexandria, and from them the Egyptians borrowed the doctrine of metampsychosis, learning to look on life as the imprisonment of the soul in the body, and the theory of successive deliverances. Gnosticos has the same meaning as Buddha—“he who knows.” Following the Persian view, they took the dogma of two principles independent one of the other,—the identification of matter with evil, the belief that the passions which corrupt the soul are emanations from the body, the division of the world into ministeries or adminstrations which have been entrusted to genii. Judaism and Christianity were mixed up together in this farrago of nonsense, and more than one believer in Jesus thought that he could graft the Gospels on to a ludicrous system of theology which seemed to say something without explaining anything in reality, whilst more than one Israelite was already playing a prelude to the follies of the cabala, which is, as a matter of fact, nothing but Jewish Gnosticism.
As we have said, the Church of Alexandria was soon tinged with these chimeras. Philo and Plato already had many readers amongst the faithful who had any education. Many joined the Church, already imbued with philosophy, and found Christian teaching poor and meagre, whilst the Jewish Bible seemed to them to be still more feeble, and, in imitation of Philo, they saw in it nothing but an allegory. They applied the same method to the Gospel, and in some fashion remodelled it, to which it lent itself easily, on account of its plastic character. All the peculiarities of the life of Jesus regained something sublime, according to these new evangelists; all his miracles became symbolical, and the follies of the Jewish ghemetria were heightened and aggravated. Like Cerinthus, these new doctors treated the Old Testament as a secondary revelation, and could not understand 82why Christianity should maintain any bond of union with that particular God, Jehovah, who is no absolute being. Could there be any stronger proof of his weakness than the state of ruin and desolation in which he had left his own city, Jerusalem? Certainly, they said, Jesus could see further and higher than the founders of Judaism, but his apostles did not comprehend him, and the texts which were supposed to represent his doctrine had been falsified. The gnosis alone, thanks to secret tradition, was in possession of the truth, and a vast system of successive emanations contains the whole secret of philosophy and history. Christianity, which was the last act of the tragedy that the universe is constantly playing, was the work of the æon Christos, who, by his intimate union with the man Jesus, saved everything that could be saved in humanity.
It will be seen that the Christianity of those sectaries was that of Cerinthus and the Ebionites. Their Gospel conformed to the Hebrew Gospel, and they described the scene of the baptism of Jesus as it was related in that Gospel, and believed, with the Docetm, that Jesus had nothing human but his appearance. The Galilean accounts appeared to them nothing but childish nonsense, altogether unworthy of the Deity, and which must be explained allegorically. For them the man Jesus was nothing, the æon Christos was everything; and his earthly life, far from being the basis of doctrine, was nothing but a difficulty to be got rid of at any price.
The ideas of the first Christians about the appearance of the Messiah in the heavens, about the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment, were looked upon as antiquated. The moment of the Resurrection for every individual was that at which he became a gnosticos. A certain relaxation of morals was the consequence of these false aristocratic ideas; 83mysticism has always been a moral danger, for it too easily gives rise to the idea that by initiation man is dispensed from the obligation of ordinary duties. “Gold,” said these false Christians, “can be dragged through the mire without becoming soiled.” They smiled when scruples about meats offered to idols were mentioned to them; they were present at plays and at gladiatorial games; and they were accused of speaking lightly of offences against chastity, and of saying,—“What is of the flesh is flesh, and what is of the spirit is spirit;” and they expressed their antipathy for martyrdom in terms that must have hurt the feelings of real Christians most profoundly. As Christ had not suffered, why should they suffer for him?” The real testimony which they ought to render to God,” they said, “was to know him as he is, it is an act of suicide for a man to confess God by his death.” According to them, the martyrs were nearly always wrong, and the pains that they suffered were the just chastisement for crimes that would have merited death, and which remained hidden. Far from complaining, they ought to be thankful to the law which transformed their just punishment into an act of heroism, and if there were a few rare cases of innocent martyrs, they were analogous to the sufferings of childhood, and fate only was to be blamed for it.
The sources of piety, however, were not yet corrupted by a proud rationalism, which generally frees itself from material practices. A liturgy, veiled in secrecy, offered abundant sacramental consolation to the faithful of those singular Churches, and life became a mystery, each one of whose acts was sacred. Baptism was a solemn ceremony, and recalled the worship of Mithra. The formula which the officiating minister pronounced was in Hebrew, and immersion there followed the anointing, which 84the Church adopted later. Extreme unction for the dying was also administered in a manner which would naturally create a great effect, and which the Catholic Church has imitated. Amongst the sectaries, worship, like dogma, was further removed from Jewish simplicity than in the churches of Peter and Paul, and the Gnostics admitted several Pagan rites, chants, hymns, and painted or sculptured representations of Christ.
In this respect their influence on the history of Christianity was of the highest order, arid they formed the bridge by which a number of Pagan practices were introduced into the Church. In the Christian propaganda they played a principal part, for, by means of Gnosticism, Christianity first of all proclaimed itself as a new religion which was destined to endure, and which possessed a form of worship and sacraments, and which could produce an art of its own. By means of Gnosticism, the Church effected a juncture with the ancient mysteries, and appropriated to herself all that they possessed that satisfied popular requirements. Thanks to it, in the fourth century, the world could pass from Paganism to Christianity without noticing it, and, above all, without guessing that it was becoming Jewish. The eclecticism and the ingratitude of the Catholic Church are here shown in a wonderful manner. Whilst repudiating and anathematising the chimeras of the Gnostics, orthodoxy received a number of happy popular devotional inspirations from them, and from the theurgical the Church advanced to the sacramental view. Her feasts, her sacraments, her art were in a great measure taken from those sects which she condemned. Christianity, pure and simple, has not left any material object, for primitive Christian archeology is Gnostic. In those small, free, and inventive sects life was without rule but full of vitality. Their very metaphysics 85already made themselves felt, and faith was obliged to reason. By the side of the Church there was henceforth to be found the school; by the side of the elder, the teacher.
Moreover, some men of rare talent, making themselves the organs of those doctrines which had hitherto been without authority, withdrew them from that state of individual speculation in which they might have remained indefinitely, and raised them to the height of a real event in the history of humanity.
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