The communities and schools of thought that were all lumped together as ‘Gnostic’ have a wide range of different ideas and teachings. Some were misogynistic and preached complete abstinence from all pleasure; others were libertine and gender-egalitarian. But there are a few points of commonality. The most important of those is the teaching that within each of us there is a piece of the divine presence.
In many versions of the myth, our spirits are pieces of a goddess – usually named Sophia – who has been kidnapped by the archons (the rulers of this world) or otherwise fallen under an enchantment and forgotten who she is. The Secret Book of John and the Hypostasis of the Archons are two Gnostic texts with classic renditions of this myth. The tale begins with the archons making a clay statue modeled after the perfect spirits (the aions) of whom they had gotten a glimpse. They can build the clay model but they can’t make it move; the only thing which brings the clay figure to life is when the spirit of Sophia or The Mother is breathed into it. But then, since the clay body now possesses spirit which they themselves don’t have, making it superior even to them, the archons become jealous and seek to trap the spirit by creating the illusion that it lives in a beautiful garden.
This is the tomb of the molded body with which they clothed the human, the fetter of the flesh. He is the primal one who came down and the primal partition. But it is the Thought of the primal light who dwells in him who awakens his thinking. …
The Chief Ruler took him and placed him in paradise, of which he said, ‘It is a delight for him’ but really so that he might deceive him. For their delight is bitter and their beauty is licentious. Their delight is a deception and their tree is iniquity. Their fruit is an incurable poison and their promise is death to him.
This belief, that human beings possess a divine spirit temporarily deceived into forgetting its nature, distinguished the Gnostics from most other Christians of their time, and certainly from all of them since Augustine. It is not compatible with the idea of original sin, or the later idea of total depravity. If there is a part of you that is divine, it is not God that does the work of reconciling you to the divine presence, it is you — and that reconciliation is not the crossing of a great gulf, but merely the cultivating of awareness of that which part of you already knows. If there is a part of you that is divine, then you are not fundamentally broken, but fundamentally okay.
It’s interesting though how different schools of Gnosticism took this idea down different paths of reasoning when it came to morality. One path led in the direction of deep ascetic worldly denial; another led in the path of heady amorality; and a third group took a middle way.
The Thomas Christians compared the physical body to a garment which the soul wears.
Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” (Gospel of Thomas 37)
The Hymn of the Pearl is another writing preserved by the Thomas Christians, a parable of a prince sent to Earth to retrieve a pearl. But the prince falls under an enchantment. He forgets his royal heritage and lives as a slave to the world’s ruler, wearing only rags. It is only when he is reminded who he is that he is finally able to discard the rags in which he was clothed and complete his task of retrieving the pearl.
Many of the Gnostics took these beliefs to mean that denial of worldly pleasure was the holiest course. They developed a morality of restriction, in which the life of ascetic denial is holy, which leads in predictable directions, such as the hostile misogyny found in later Gnostic writings such as the Exegesis on the Soul.
This text is essentially a commentary on scripture, developing the idea of the reincarnating soul comparing it to a wandering prostitute who couples with many bodies. The tone is misogynistic, which is not surprisingly coupled with a strong moralizing tone and promotion of an ascetic way of life. The text is a little unusual in that draws from the Prophets as well as the New Testament and Homer, but this underscores the syncretic nature of Gnosticism.
As long as she was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and […] her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short, they defiled her, and she […] her virginity.
Other Gnostics, such as the libertine Carpocratians, believed that morality of restriction was another way of letting the flesh rule you. None of their writings have survived, but we have a (somewhat polemically described) summary of their beliefs recorded by Bishop Irenaeus:
[T]hey maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular.
The Valentinian school eschewed both extremes, following the argument of Aristotle that every virtue is a rational mean between two vices, which are extremes:
it is possible to fail in many ways … while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;
For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect…
For the Valentinians, the archontic prison was much more devious than simply “enclosing spirit in a prison of flesh” — the mind was the starting point and the ending point for their investigations. The mind is the source of error, following fear and and hate and falsehood down pathways of erroneous logic — but is also the source of the solution, capable of following truth and wisdom and applying correct logic. Salvation then depends on learning how to discern error from truth, which is not a kind of wisdom that can be encapsulated in a myth or a set of pithy principles. Any idea or concept can be misused or misapplied or taken to an extreme. One must raise one’s mind above (metanoia) the traps of logic and error.
Because there is only one way to be right and many ways to be wrong, it follows that there is ultimately only one wisdom, and we can see clues of this in many faith traditions. Also, this truth should in every way match what we find in natural observation of the universe. When we investigate nature we should not find patterns there which reflect a different order from the things we believe – or else our beliefs must be mistaken, since truth and nature are reflections of the same cosmic ordering principle — the same Logos.
The difficulty of belonging to a faith tradition was illustrated in the Letter of Ptolemy to Flora, an epistle from one student of Valentinus to another, which namely is this: that in any doctrine, the truth is intertwined with falsehood, and we must contemplate each teaching to ascertain whether it is truly the teaching of Logos or merely that which was written by a man in pursuit of a particular goal.
For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself … nor by the devil…, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate.
And if the perfect God is good by nature … and if the one who is the opposite nature is evil and wicked, characterized by injustice; then the one situated between the two is neither good nor evil or unjust, but can properly be called just, since he is the arbitrator of the justice which is his.