The Divine Origin of Evil in Valentinian Gnosticism
Several Gnostic systems in late antiquity envisioned a separation between the truly supreme, transcendent deity and the inferior, mediocre or even malevolent creator–deity, the “Demiurge” (the term is borrowed from Plato’s Timaeus). In classic Gnostic myth–– such as that found in the Apocryphon of John–– the creator is a more or less malevolent agent to whom cosmic evil may be attributed. However, in one variant of this scheme, that of the Valentinians, the very first seed of evil is described as a natural by–product of divine transcendence itself. The supreme deity remains utterly self–directed and is thus ostensibly absolved of any complicity in the creation of a deeply imperfect world, while the subsidiary deities who are in fact ultimately responsible for worldly evil are themselves less hostile forces than they are tragic and ultimately sympathetic characters in an inexorable cosmogonic drama. The profoundly human pathos of this scheme, as well as its philosophical ingenuity and conceptual sophistication–– one that blends metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and physics–– provided the initial inspiration for our attempt at a visual evocation.
In the typical Valentinian protology, the supreme deity–– known as the Deep–– impregnates its own ineffable silence, which is sometimes hypostatized into a quasi–independent female consort––Silence–– who abides within the Deep itself. This union begets Intellect, which itself emerges as an independent hypostasis. Through similar processes of cognitive self–reflection, the divine Intellect produces a profusion of other hypostases, known as “aeons” or eternities. These aeons–– 30 in all–– comprise the divine realm, the Pleroma. All of the aeons long for their ultimate progenitor, but Intellect is the only principle that can truly comprehend the transcendent deity. The last of the aeons named Sophia (“Wisdom”) boldly ascends towards the supreme deity in an attempt to know it, but she fails and consequently suffers perplexity. Herein lies the root of all subsequent evil. For Sophia’s initial distress–– the prefiguration of human suffering–– that arises from her (quite understandable) inability to know what is utterly unknowable–– gives birth to an amorphous substance that crystallizes into an independent entity, the Demiurge, who is described in certain sources as the fearsome leontomorphic deity Ialdabaoth. Upon apprehending the deformity of her offspring, Sophia now suffers the actualized prototypes of human emotions–– the “passions”–– such as fear, grief, and anger. In a remarkably subtle philosophical innovation, the Valentinians taught that Sophia’s passions then crystallize into the elements of cosmic matter (contemporary academic Platonism failed to provide an account of the origin of the matter from which Plato’s Demiurge creates the universe). Ignorant of the fact that he is not the supreme deity, and ignorant of the Pleroma (i.e. of the realm of Platonic Forms), the Demiurge then impulsively creates the visible universe out of the elements of matter, modeling it after a dim reflection of the aeons that he sees reflected in the element of water. The creation of the universe from matter–– itself the product of divine suffering–– ensures that human experience is suffused with suffering.
The significance of this scheme is that the origin of evil–– that is, human suffering–– can be attributed not to divine agency, but to divine suffering, which is itself the result of Sophia’s hubristic but ultimately noble intellectual curiosity and her profound love for her forefather, and to the Demiurge’s inchoate creative impulse that can be understood as a well–meaning but ignorant desire to imitate the perfect, immaterial and / or intelligible creation of the higher aeons of which he was only dimly aware, a conception which the Valentinians derived from Plato’s critique of the mimetic human artist in Book 10 of the Republic(596b-598d). Indeed, the emergence of worldly evil is ultimately the result of the vast ontological differential within the godhead itself, a differential that arises inevitably from the very nature of divine transcendence.
The film itself consists of two 3–minute segments. Part 1 describes the emergence of the Demiurge from Sophia’s failed attempts to know the supreme deity; Part 2 explains the crystallization of matter from Sophia’s passions and the Demiurge’s use of this matter in the creation of the universe. The film employs voice–over narration and animated diagrams as well as evocative visual narrative to convey this scheme.
Here we should also make absolutely clear those aspects of the film where we depart from strict historical accuracy.
First, the film admittedly omits a great deal of detail of what is in fact an extremely complicated system, and one that has innumerable variants. We have tried to emphasize one single, philosophical aspect of this ontogenetic schema at the expense of a profusion of details, and we have also synthesized several accounts of related systems into a single, integral narrative in an attempt to distill the conceptual structure of the myth and to convey it in an easily understood form. However, although our exact configuration of the myth does not exist in any single text, every individual aspect of our narrative has a specific textual source.
Second, we have taken some artistic liberty with our representation of the Demiurge. In the most complete heresiological accounts of Valentinian doctrine, the Demiurge is not specifically named Ialdabaoth and is not described as leontomorphic. Instead, the description of the creator–deity as leonine is especially common in the closely–related Sethian systems and in classic Gnostic myth as it occurs in the Apocryphon of John (NHC III,1 15.11, BG 8502 37.21, and NHC II,1 10.9), where it is likely based on the leonine aspect of the chimaera–like human soul described by Plato in Book 9 of the Republic (588c–589a): a Platonic passage, incidentally, whose importance as a source–text for the Gnostics is suggested by its occurrence in a fragmentary Coptic translation in Nag Hammadi Codex VI (NHC VI,5 48.16–51.23) among other patently Gnostic tractates. We chose to portray the Demiurge as the leontomorphic Ialdabaoth for two reasons. First, we did so because the Valentinian sources themselves provide no other potentially conflicting description of the Demiurge, while some Gnostic sources that are closely related to Valentinianism but not necessarily Valentinian themselves do specifically describe him as the leontomorphic Ialdabaoth (e.g. On the Origin of the World, NHC II,5 100.25). This, we believe, makes it likely that the leontomorphic conception of the Demiurge was implicit even among Valentinians. Second, we chose the image of Ialdabaoth because it so perfectly evokes the impetuous, fearsome, audacious, but ultimately loveable nature of the Demiurge’s character.
Primary sources upon which this film is based include the heresiological locus classicus for various branches of Valentinian doctrine found in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I.1–12, but also Hippolytus, Adversus Omnium Haeresium VI.24–32, and Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianus.
Secondary sources that discuss the philosophical aspects of the Valentinian protological scheme involving the creation of matter from the passions of Sophia are not many, but include:
Dillon, J., “The Descent of the Soul in Middle Platonic and Gnostic Theory,” pp. 357-64 in B. Layton, ed. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 1980.
Krämer, H.-J. Der Ursprung der Geistmetaphysik: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Platonismus zwischen Platon und Plotin. Amsterdam: Schippers, 1964.
Pépin, J. “Theories of Procession in Plotinus and the Gnostics,” pp. 297-335 in R. T. Wallis, ed. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, [Studies in Neoplatonism: Ancient and Modern, vol. 6]. Albany: SUNY, 1992.
Perkins, P. “Beauty, Number, and Loss of Order in the Gnostic Cosmos,” pp. 277–296 in R. T. Wallis, ed. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, [Studies in Neoplatonism: Ancient and Modern, vol. 6]. Albany: SUNY, 1992.
Thomassen, E. “The Derivation of Matter in Monistic Gnosticism,” pp. 1-17 in Turner and Majercik, eds. Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, Texts [SBL Symposium Series 12]. Atlanta: SBL, 2000.
Whittaker, J. “Self-Generating Principles in Second-Century Gnostic Systems,” pp. 176-193 in B. Layton, ed. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 1, [Studies in the History of Religions 41]. Leiden: Brill, 1980.
This 2–part film explores one particularly intriguing aspect of the sophisticated explanation of the origin of evil that was developed by the Valentinian and other Gnostic sects in late antiquity.
Part 1: The Generation of the Demiurge through the cognitive failure of Sophia
Part 2: The Generation of matter from Sophia’s passions and the creation of the Universe
A series of 2 3–minute experimental digital video documentaries on a curiosity of late antique intellectual history
Winner of a Special Achievement Award
in the 2010 Harvard Shorts Film Competition Scholarly Serials Category
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