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Basilides, who seems to have come from Syria to live at Alexandria, in Lower Egypt. and in the adjacent departments, was the first of those foreign dogmatisers to whom one hesitates at times to give the name of Christian. He is said to have been a disciple of Menander, and seems to have had two courses of instruction: the one, which was intended for the initiated, was restricted to religions of abstract metaphysics which were more in keeping with those of Aristotle than those of Christ, and the other was a sort of mythology, founded, like the Jewish cabala, on abstractions, which men took for realities. The metaphysics of Basilides remind us of those of Hegel, because of their unhealthy grandeur. His system owed much to the Stoic cosmogony. Universal life is a development of a πανσπερμα. Just as the seed contains the trunk, the roots, the flowers, and the fruits of the future plant, so the future of the universe is only an evolution. Filiation is the secret of everything; the species is the child of the genius, and is only an expansion of it.86The aspiration of creatures is towards the good. Progress is made by that mind which stops between two boundaries (Μεθόριον πνεῠμα),—which, having, as it were, one foot in the ideal and the other in the material world, makes the ideal circulate amongst the material, and continually raises it. A sort of universal groaning of nature, a melancholy feeling of the universe, calls us to final repose, which will consist in the general unconsciousness of individuals in the bosom of God, and in the absolute extinction of every desire. “The good tidings” of progress were brought into the world by Jesus, the son of Mary. Already, before him, chosen heathens and Jews had caused the spiritual element to triumph over the material; but Jesus completely separated these two elements, so that only the spiritual element remained. Thus death could take nothing from him. All men ought to imitate him, to attain the same end. They will do so by receiving the “glad tidings,” that is to say, the transcendent gnosis, eagerly.

In order to make these ideas more accessible, Basilides gave them a cosmogonic form analogous to those which were common in the religions of Phœnicia, Persia, and Assyria. It was a sort of divine epopæia, having for its heroes divine attributes personified, and whose diverse episodes represented the strife between good and evil. The good is the supreme god, ineffable and lost in himself. His name is Abraxas. That eternal being develops himself in seven perfections, which form with the Being himself the divine ogdoade. The seven perfections, Nous, Logos, Sophia, etc., by pairing together, have produced the orders of inferior angels (æons, worlds), to the number of three hundred and sixty-five, That number is made up by the letters of the word Abraxas added together according to their numerical value.

The angels of the last heaven, whose prince is Jehovah, created the earth, which is the most mediocre 87of the worlds, the most sullied by matter, on the model furnished by Sophia, but under the empire of necessities, which made a mixture of good and evil out of it. Jehovah and the demiurges divided the government of this world between them, and distributed the provinces and the nations amongst themselves. Those are the local gods of the different countries. Jehovah chose the Jews: he is an invading and a conquering God. The Law, his work, is a mixture of material and spiritual views. The other local gods were obliged to coalesce against this aggressive neighbour, who, in spite of the division that had been agreed upon, wished to subjugate all nations to his own.

To put an end to this war of the gods, the supreme God sent the prince of the æons, the Nous, his first son, with the mission to deliver men from the power of the demiurge angels. The Nous did not exactly become incarnate. At the moment of baptism the Nous attached to itself the person of the man Jesus, and did not leave it till the moment of the Passion. According to some disciples of Basilides, a substitution took place at that moment, and Simon of Cyrene was crucified in Jesus' stead. The persecutions to which Jesus and the apostles were subjected by the Jews arose from the anger of Jehovah, who, seeing that his rule was threatened, made a last effort to avert the dangers of the future.

The place which Basilides attributed to Jesus in the economy of the world’s history does not differ essentially from that which is attributed to him in the Epistle to the Colossians and in the pseudo-Johannine Gospel. Basilides knew some words of Hebrew, and had certainly taken his Christianity from the Ebionites. He gave a so-called Glaucias, St Peter’s interpreter, as his master. He made use of the New Testament very nearly as it had been formed by general consent, excluding certain books, 88particularly the epistles to the Hebrews, to Titus and to Timothy, admitting St John’s Gospel. He wrote twenty-four books of allegorical Expositions of the Gospel, without our being able to tell exactly what texts he made use of. After the example of all the sects that surrounded the Church, and, in a measure, sucked her, Basilides composed apocryphal books,—esoteric traditions attributed to Matthias; revelations borrowed from chimerical people, Barcabban and Barcoph; prophecies of Cham. Like Valentinus, he seems to have composed sacred psalms or canticles. Lastly, besides the commentary on the received Gospels that he had edited, there was a gospel analogous to that of the Hebrews, of the Egyptians, and of the Ebionites, which differed little from that of Matthew, which bore the name of Basilides. His son, Isidore, carried on his teaching, wrote commentaries on the apocryphal prophets, and developed his myths. Weak Christians easily allowed themselves to be seduced by these dreams. A learned and esteemed Christian writer, Agrippa Castor, constituted himself its ardent adversary as soon as it appeared.

Theurgy is generally the ordinary companion of religious intemperance. The disciples of Basilides did not invent, but they adopted, the magic virtues of the word Abraxas. They were also reproached with a very lax state of morals. It is certain that when so much importance is attached to metaphysical formulas, simple and good morality seems to be a humble and almost indifferent matter. A man who has become perfect by gnosis can allow himself anything. It seems that Basilides did not say that, but he was made to say it, and that was to a certain point the consequence of his theosophy. The saying which was attributed to him,—“We are men, the others are only swine and dogs,” was, after all, only the brutal translation of the more acceptable saying,—89“I am speaking for one in a thousand.” The taste for mystery which that sect had, its habit of avoiding the light and hiding itself from the eyes of the multitude, the silence that was exacted from the initiated, gave rise to those rumours. Many calumnies were mixed up with all that. Thus Basilides was accused of having maintained, like all the Gnostics, that it was no crime to renounce apparently the beliefs for which one was persecuted; to lend oneself to acts indifferent in themselves, which the civil law exacted; even to go so far as to curse Christ, so long as in one’s mind one distinguished between the aeon Nous and the man Jesus. Now we have the original text of Basilides, and we find in it a much more moderate criticism of martyrdom than that which his opponents attribute to him. It is true that, attributing no importance whatever to the real Jesus, the Gnostics had no reason to die for him. On the whole they were only semi-Christians. Perhaps the superstitions which sprang from the sect were not the faults of Basilides. Some of his maxims were very beautiful, but his style, from the fragments which we possess, appears to have been obscure and pretentious.

Valentinus was certainly superior to him. Something sorrowful, a gloomy and icy resignation makes a sort of bad dream out of the system of Basilides. Valentinus penetrates everything with love and pity. The redemption of Christ has for him a feeling of joy; his doctrine was a consolation for many, and real Christians adopted, or at least admired him.

That celebrated, enlightened man, born, as it seems, in Lower Egypt, was educated in the schools of Alexandria, and first taught there. He would also appear to have dogmatised in Cyprus. Even his enemies allow that he had genius, a vast amount of knowledge, and rare eloquence. Gained over by the great seductions of Christianity, and attached to the 90Church, but nourished on Plato, and full of the recollections of profane learning, he was not satisfied with the spiritual nourishment which the pastors gave to the simple: he wanting something higher. He conceived a sort of Christian rationalism, a general system of the world, in which Christianity would have a place in the first rank, but would not be everything. Enlightened and tolerant, he admitted a heathen as well as a Jewish revelation. A number of things in the Church’s teaching appeared to him coarse and inadmissible by a cultivated mind. He called the orthodox “Galileans,” not without a shade of irony. With nearly all the Gnostics, he denied the resurrection of the body, or rather maintained that, as far as regards those who are perfect, the resurrection is accomplished already,—that it consists in the knowledge of the truth,—that the soul alone can be saved.

If Valentinus had limited himself to cherishing these thoughts internally, to speaking about them to his friends, and to not frequenting the Church except in so far as it answered to his feelings, his position would have been altogether correct. But he wanted more: with his ideas, he wished to have a place of importance in the Church; and he was wrong, for the order of speculation in which he delighted was not one which the Church could encourage. The Church’s object was the amelioration of morals and the diminution of the people’s sufferings, not science or philosophy. Valentinus ought to have been satisfied with being a philosopher. Far from that, he tried to make disciples, like the ecclesiastics. When he had insinuated himself into any one’s confidence, he proposed different questions to him, in order to prove the absurdity of orthodoxy. At the same time, he tried to persuade him that there was something better than that: he expounded that superior wisdom with mystery. If objections were made to him, he would 91let the discussion drop with an air that seemed to say, “ You will never be anything but a simple believer.” His disciples showed themselves equally unconceivable. When they were asked questions, they wrinkled their brows, contracted their faces, and slipped away, saying, “O depth” If they were pressed, they affirmed the common faith amidst a thousand ambiguities, then returned to their avowal, baffled their opponent, and escaped, saying, “You do not understand anything about the matter.”

Already it was the essence of Catholicism not to suffer any aristocracy,—that of elevated philosophy no more than that of pretentious piety. Valentinus’s position was a very false one. In order to make himself acceptable to the people, he conformed his discourses to those of the Church; but the bishops were on their guard, and excluded him. The simple believers allowed themselves to be caught; they even murmured because the bishops drove such good Catholics out of their communion. Useless sympathy! for already the Episcopate had restricted the Church on all sides. Valentinus thus remained in the state of an unfortunate candidate for the pastoral ministry. He wrote letters, homilies, and hymns of a lofty moral tone. The fragments by him that have been preserved have vigour and brilliancy, but their phraseology is eccentric. It resembles the mania which the Saint Simonians had of building up great theories in abstract language to express realities which were almost paltry. His general system had not that appearance of good sense that succeeds with the masses. The pretended Gospel of St John, with its far simpler combinations of the Logos and the Paraclete, had far greater success.

Valentines starts, like all the Gnostics, from a system of metaphysics whose fundamental principle is that God manifests himself by successive emanations, of which the world is the most humble. The 92world is a work which is too imperfect for an infinite workman t it is the miserable copy of a divine model at the beginning. The Abyss (Bythos), inaccessible, unfathomable, which is also called Proarché, Propator, Silence (Sigè) is its eternal companion. After centuries of solitude and of dumb contemplation of its being, the Abyss wishes at length to appear in the outer world, and with his companion begets a syzygia, Nous or Monogenes and Alethia (Truth); they beget Logos and Zoe, who in their turn beget Anthropos and Ecclesia. Together with the primordial couple those three syzygias form the ogdoade, and with other syzygias emanated from Logos and Zoe, from Anthropos and Ecclesia the divine Pleroma, the plenitude of the divinity which for the future is conscious of its own existence. These couples fall from perfection in measure as they get further and further from the first source; at the same time, the love of perfection, the regret, the desire to return to their first principle, are awakened in them. Sophia especially makes a bold attempt to embrace the invisible Bythos, who only reveals himself by his Monogenes (only son). She continually wears herself out, extends herself to embrace the invisible; drawn away by the sweetness of her love, she is on the point of being absorbed by Bythos, of being annihilated. The whole Pleroma is in confusion. In order to re-establish harmony, Nous or Monogenes engender Christos and Pneuma, who pacify the æons, and make equality reign amongst them. Then, out of gratitude for Bythos, who has pacified them, the moons bring together all their perfections, and form the æon Jesus, the firstborn of creation, as Monogenes had been the firstborn of the emanation. Thus Jesus becomes in the inferior world what Christos had been in the divine Pleroma.

In consequence of the ardour of her insensate passion, Sophia had produced by herself a sort of hermaphrodite abortion without consciousness, 93Hakamoth, also called Sophia Prunicos, or Prunice, who, driven from the Pleroma, moved about in the void and the night. Moved by compassion for this unfortunate being, Christos, leaning on Stauros (the cross), comes to her aid, gives the erring æon a determinate form and consciousness; but he does not give her knowledge, and Hakamoth, again rejected from the Pleroma, is cast into space. Given up to all the violence of her desires, she brings forth, on the one hand, the soul of the world, and all psychic substances; and on the other, matter. In her, anguish alternates with hope. At one time she feared her annihilation; at other times the recollection of her lost past filled her with joy. Her tears formed the moist element; her smile was the light; her sadness, opaque matter. At last the æon Jesus came to save her, and, in her delight, the poor delivered creature gave birth to the spiritual element,—the third of the elements that constitute the world. Hakamoth, or Prunice, nevertheless does not rest; agitation is her essence; there is a work of God going on in her; she endures a continual flow of blood. The bad part of her activity is concentrated on the demons; the other part, re-united to matter, implants in it the germ of a fire which shall devour it some day.

With the psychic element Hakamoth creates the demiurge, which serves her as an instrument for organising the remaining beings. The demiurge creates the seven worlds, and man in the last of these worlds. But the surprising thing is that a superior and altogether divine principle is revealed in man, and that is the spiritual element, which Hakamoth had imparted to her work from oversight. The creator is jealous of his own creature; he lays a snare for him (the prohibition to eat the fruit of Paradise); man falls into it. He would have been eternally lost except for the love which his mother 94Hakamoth bore him. The redemption of each world has been accomplished by a special saviour. The saviour of men was the son Jesus, clothed by Hakamoth with the spiritual principle; with the psychic principle by the demiurge; with the material principle by Mary; identified lastly with Christos, who, on the day of his baptism, descended on to him in the form of a dove, and did not leave him again till after his condemnation by Pilate. The spiritual principle will persevere in Jesus till the agony on the cross. The psychic and the material principles alone will suffer, and will rise to heaven through the ascension. There were Gnostics before Jesus, but he came to reunite them and to form them into a Church by the Holy Spirit. The Church is made up neither of bodies nor of souls, but of spirits: the Gnostics alone form her component parts. At the end of the world matter will be devoured by the internal fire which she hides within herself; Christ will reign instead of the demiurge, and Hakamoth will definitely enter into the Pleroma, which will, thenceforward, be pacified.

Men by their very nature, and independently of their efforts, are divided into three categories, according as the material element, the psychic or animal element, and the spiritual element predominate in them. The heathen are the material men who are irrevocably devoted to the works of the flesh. The simple faithful, the generality of Christians, are the psychic men; in virtue of their intermediate essence, they can rise or fall, lose themselves in matter, or be absorbed into the spirit. The Gnostics are the spiritual men, whether they be Christians, whether they be Jews, like the prophets, or heathens, like the sages of Greece. The spiritual men will some day be joined to the Pleroma. The material men will die altogether; the psychic men will be 95damned or saved according to their works. External worship is only a symbol, which, though it is good for the psychic mind, is altogether useless for men who give themselves up to pure contemplation. It is an eternal error of the mystic sects who put into their chimeras the initiation above good works, which they leave to the simple. That is the reason why every gnosis, whatever it may do, arrives at indifference to works and contempt for practical virtue, that is to say, at immorality.

There is certainly something grand in these strange myths. When it is a question of the infinite, of things which can only be known partially and secretly, which cannot be expressed without being strained, pathos itself has its charms; one takes pleasure in it, like in those somewhat unhealthy poems whose taste one blames, though one cannot help liking them. The history of the world, conceived like an embryo which is seeking for life, which painfully attains consciousness, which troubles everything by its movements, whilst those movements themselves become the cause of progress and end in the full realisation of the vague instincts of the ideal, such are the ideas which are not very far removed from those which we choose at times to express our views about the development of the infinite. But all that could not be reconciled to Christianity. Those metaphysics of dreamers, that system of morality thought out by recluses, that brahminical pride which would have brought back the rule of castes had it been allowed its own way, would have killed the Church, if the Church had not taken the initiative. It was not without reason that orthodoxy kept a middle position between the Nazarenes, who only saw the human side of Jesus, and the Gnostics, who saw nothing but his divine nature. Valentinus made fun of the simple eclecticism which induced the Church to wish to join two 96contrary elements together. The Church was right. There is no medium between regulated faith and free thought. Whoever does not admit authority puts himself outside the pale of the Church, and ought to turn philosopher. “They speak like the Church,” Irenæus said, “but they think differently.” It was a sad game to play. Valentinus was led to hypocrisy and fraud by the same reasons as Basilides was. To free himself from apostolic chains, he claimed to attach himself to secret traditions and to an esoteric teaching which Jesus was said not to have imparted to any except the most spiritually-minded of his disciples. Valentinus said that he had received that hidden doctrine from a pretended Theodades or Theodas, a disciple of St Paul. He appears to have called this the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus' Gospel, at any rate, approximated very closely to that of the Ebionites. In it the duration of the appearances of the risen Jesus was extended over eighteen months.

These despairing efforts to reconcile God and man in Jesus, resulted from difficulties that were inherent in the nature of Christianity. In fact, the travail which was agitating the Christian conscience in Egypt manifested itself also in Syria. Gnosticism appeared in Antioch almost at the same time as it did in Alexandria. Saturninus, or Satorniles, who was said to have been a pupil of Menander, like Basilides was, put forth views which were analogous to those of the latter, though they bore an even stronger impress of Persian dualism. The Pleroma and matter—Bythos and Satan—are the two poles of the universe. The kingdoms of good and evil are the two confines on which they meet. Near those confines the world came into existence, and it was the work of the seven last Eons or demiurges who were wandering in the realms of Satan. Those æons (Jehovah is one of them) divide the government 97of their work between them, and each appropriates a planet. They do not know the inaccessible Bythos; but Bythos is favourable to them, reveals himself to them by a ray of his beauty, and then hides himself from their admiration. The divine image ceaselessly haunts them, and they create man in the likeness of that image.

Man, as he left the hand of the demiurges, was pure matter. He crawled on the earth like a worm, and had no intelligence. A spark from the Pleroma gives him true life. He thinks, and rises to his feet. Then Satan is filled with rage, and dreams of nothing but of opposing this regenerate man, the mixed work of the demiurges and of God, a man who shall spring entirely from himself. Side by side with divine humanity there is for the future the satanic humanity. To crown the evil, the demiurges revolt against God, and separate creation from that superior principle from which it ought to draw its life. The divine spark no longer circulates between the Pleroma and humanity—between humanity and the Pleroma. Man is devoted to evil and to error. Christ saves him by suppressing the action of the God of the Jews, but the strife between the good and evil men continues. The former are the Gnostics; the soul is entirely in them, and consequently they live eternally. On the other hand, the body cannot rise again: it is condemned to perish. Whatever propagates the body propagates the empire of Satan, and, consequently, marriage is an evil. It weakens the divine principle in man, by subdividing that principle to infinity.

It will be seen that all those sects were equally incapable of giving a serious basis to morality. They even had difficulty in avoiding the breakers of secret debauches and accusations of infamy. Alexandria could not stop on that slippery ground. That extraordinary city was destined to see, at its 98most brilliant period, all the evils of the age burst forth within it in all their energy. Carpocrates drew from it the deductions of an unwholesome philosophy, which carried the exaggerations of an intemperate supernaturalism amongst all orders, and tossed men to and fro between asceticism and immorality, rarely leaving him in the golden mean of reason. Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes did not recoil before any of the excesses of sensual mysticism, as they proclaimed the indifference of actions, the community of women, the holiness of all perversions, as means of delivering the spirit from the flesh. That deliverance of the spiritual man which wrests souls from the wicked demiurges to reunite them to the supreme God, was the work of the sages Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, etc. The statues of those sages were adored,—they were crowned,—incense and even sacrifices were offered to them. According to Carpocrates, Jesus, the son of Joseph, had been the justest man of his time. After having practised Judaism, he recognised its vanity, and by that act of disdain he merited deliverance. Nowhere is it forbidden to aspire to equal and even to surpass him in holiness. His resurrection is an impossibility; his soul alone has been received into heaven; his body remained on earth. The apostles—Peter, Paul, and the others—were not inferior to Jesus, but if any one could arrive at a more perfect contempt for the world of the demiurges, that is to say, for reality, he would surpass him. The Carpocratians claimed to exercise that power by magical operations, by philtres, by witchcraft. It is clear that they were not true members of the Church of Jesus. Nevertheless, the sectaries took the name of Christians, and the orthodox were in despair at it. As a matter of fact, in their conventicles, abominations, such as the calumniators of the Christians reproached the faithful with, took 99place, and this usurpation of the name caused deplorable prejudices to take deep root amongst the multitude.

Far from exhibiting the slightest complaisance towards the culpable mysteries, the Church only held them in abhorrence and visited them with the most violent anathemas which she could find in her sacred texts. What was said of the Nicolaitanes at the beginning of the Apocalypse was brought to mind. By the name Nicolaitanes, the Seer of Patmos most likely intends to designate St Paul’s partisans: at any rate such a designation has nothing at all to do with the Deacon Nicholas, who was one of the Seven in the Primitive Church of Jerusalem. But that false identification was soon accredited. Scandalous stories were told against the alleged heresiarch which very much resembled those which were told about the Carpocratians. Many aberrations took place on all sides, and no paradox was without its defender. People were found who took the part of Cain, of Esau, of Korah, of the Sodomites, of Judas himself. Jehovah was the evil,—a tyrant filled with hatred, and it had been right to brave his laws. These were kinds of literary paradoxes; just as thirty or forty years ago it was the fashion to set up criminals as heroes, because they were supposed to be in revolt against bad social order. There was a Gospel of Judas. In excuse for this latter, it was said that he had betrayed Jesus with a good intention, because he had found out that his master wished to ruin the truth. The traitor’s conduct was also explained by a motive of interest for humanity. The powers of the world (that is to say, Satan and his agents) wished to stop the work of salvation, by preventing Jesus from dying. Judas, who knew that the death of Jesus on the cross was beneficial, broke the charm, by giving him up to his enemies. Thus he was 100the purest of spiritual men. These singular Christians were called Cainites. Like Carpocrates, they taught that, in order to be saved, it was necessary to have done all sorts of actions, and, in some manner, to have exhausted all the experiences of life: it is said that they placed the perfection of enlightenment in the commission of the darkest deeds. Every act has an angel who presides over it, and they invoked that angel whilst they were doing the act. Their books were worthy of their morals. They had the Gospel of Judas, and some other writings which were made to exhort men to destroy the work of the Creator; one book in particular, called The Ascension of St Paul, into which they seem to have introduced horrible abominations.

These were aberrations without any real object, and which certainly the serious-minded Gnostics rejected just as much as the orthodox Christians. The really grave part about it was the destruction of Christianity, which was at the bottom of all these speculations. In reality the living Jesus was suppressed, and only a phantom Jesus, without any efficacy for the conversion of the heart, was left. Moral effort was replaced by so-called science; dreams took the place of Christian realities, and every man arrogated to himself the right to carve out as he chose a Christianity according to his fancy, from the dogmas and earlier books. This was no longer Christianity, it was a strange parasite which was trying to pass for a branch of the tree of life. Jesus was no longer a fact without analogy; he was one of the apparitions of the divine spirit. Docetism, which reduced all the human life of Jesus to a mere appearance, was the basis of all these errors. Still, moderate with Basilides and Valentinus, it becomes absolute with Saturninus, and with Marcion we shall see that the whole of the Saviour’s earthly career is reduced to a pure appearance.


Orthodoxy will be able to resist these dangerous ideas, whilst at times allowing itself to be drawn away by their seductive qualities. Gospels, deeply tinged with new ideas, were spread abroad. The “Gospel of Peter” was the expression of pure Docetism. The “Gospel according to the Egyptians” was a remodelling, after the Alexandrine ideas, of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. The union of the sexes was forbidden in it. The Saviour, on being questioned by Salome when his kingdom would come, answered, “When you tread under foot the garment of shame; when two shall make one; when that which is outside shall be like that which is inside, and the male joined to a female shall be neither male nor female.” Interpreted according to the rules of the vocabulary of Philo, these strange words signify that when humanity is no more, the body will be spiritualised and enter into the soul, so that man will be nothing but a pure spirit. The “coats of skins” with which God covered Adam will then be useless; primitive innocence will reign again.

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