Category: Philosophical theories

Gnosticism and Plato

Redemptive teachings that developed in the context of Christianity in the course of the first three centuries of its history under the clear influence of Platonic philosophy, especially in terms of the differences between the intelligible and the sensible realms or the eternal and the perishable substances.


The term “Gnosticism” was coined in the 17th century. It has been employed ever since to denote an assortment of religious trends that emerged in the early Christian centuries, and were opposed to what eventually became the official orthodox Christian dogma. In that sense, Gnosticism represents a heresy, or rather a class of discrete heresies that formed within the ambit of Christianity.

There is a large debate concerning the origins of this phenomenon. Certain scholars have argued that Gnosticism predated Christianity, and constitutes an offshoot of Judaic apocryphal literature and Hebrew mysticism. Others view it as an attempt to fuse Judeo-Christian elements with the conceptual requirements informing philosophical Hellenism.

Gnostic doctrine

Notwithstanding the significant divergences between them, the various Gnostic trends that emerged between the first and the third centuries AD have a common denominator: the shared belief (i) that the sensible world represents the imperfect, or even inherently evil, creation not of the supreme god, but of some lesser divinity, and (ii) that humanity’s goal is to transcend this world through some esoteric gnôsis (= knowledge) and the reunification of the purified soul with the supreme divine principle.

In Gnostic literature, the term gnôsis does not signify intellectual understanding and the ability to demonstrate the validity of a certain thesis, as is often the case in philosophical works, but deep and substantial awareness, direct intuition and/or mystical insight. The goal of the “knowledge” that is sought is invariably redemptive, never purely theoretical.

The anti-cosmic vain in Gnosticism could have proceeded, and indeed it did, along two apparently opposite paths: the way of asceticism and outright rejection of bodily pleasures, on the one hand, and the path of rampant, sometimes even transgressive, eroticism, on the other. In both cases the goal was release from the bondage of the senses which, according to the Gnostics, represented the chief obstacle to redemption, and the cause behind the primordial Man’s fall into matter.

The disparities, prominently highlighted in the works of the Gnostics, between the intelligible and the sensible realms, soul and body, Being and becoming, Form and matter, the immortal and the mortal, stem from Platonic metaphysics and the eschatological myths found in dialogues such as the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, and the Republic. Thus, in Gnosticism we can detect various aspects of Platonic dualism.

The leading figures of Gnosticism fused Eastern mythical imagery and religious symbols with personified philosophical concepts, and composed narratives, exquisitely intricate at times, that satisfied the intellect, and brought satisfaction to the hearts of their devotees. Their Greek-inspired model of the universe, with Earth at its center, the spheres of the seven planets in between and the realm of the fixed stars in its outer fringes, functioned as the stage of an existential drama of cosmic proportions, repeated at the birth of every individual human being. A great number of supernatural beings (Aeons, Angels, Archons, etc.) filled in the space between Heaven and Earth, and exerted their influence, sometimes beneficial, other times harmful, on the descent and ascent of the souls.

The triptych “Man-World-God” determined Gnostic teachings. Contrary to official Christianity, the Gnostics believed that salvation could not result from faith alone, but required esoteric gnôsis of the three fundamentals of their mythical ontology. According to some of them, people are divided into three categories, depending on their degree of readiness to assimilate this redemptive “knowledge”: the “materials”, the “psychics”, and the “spirituals”.

The main currents in Gnosticism were the Sethians (named after Seth, the mythical son of Adam, from whom Sethian Gnostics claimed to have descended); the school of Basilides (floruit c.117-161) in Alexandria; the school of Valentinus (c.100-175) in Rome; and Manichaeism (which was named after its Persian founder, Mani (214-276) and constituted an autonomous cult for a period of time).

The Nag Hammadi Library

Until the mid-20th century, save for a few Coptic translations preserving original Greek works, our knowledge on Gnosticism relied heavily on the hostile testimony of the Christian Fathers (especially Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, and Epiphanius of Salamis). In 1945, however, the library of a Gnostic community was discovered in Egypt (it is now known as the Nag Hammadi Corpus = N.H.C. taking its name from the nearby town). This library contains 46, in their majority otherwise unkown, Greek works preserved in 13 codices, all in Coptic translation. Among these is a small passage from Plato’s Republic (588a-589b), which suggests that Platonic dialogues were among the Gnostics’ readings. An example of Sethian cosmogony The Apocryphon [sc. Evangelion] (aka Secret Book of John) is considered the main text of Sethian Gnosticism; the work has been preserved in four versions (N.H.C. ΙΙ.1, N.H.C. ΙΙΙ.1, N.H.C. IV.1, and one Gnostic codex in Berlin). It is a revelation delivered by Jesus to John, the son of Zebedee, that relates how the various divine entities originated from a completely transcendent and inaccessible supreme God; how the sensible world came to be; and how man can achieve salvation.

The first offspring of the transcendent Monad, which is described in extremely apophatic theological terms, is claimed to be Barbelo, a divinity sometimes depicted as female, and other times as androgynous. As she contemplates the first Monad, Barbelo gives birth to an Offspring of Light, identified with Christ and dubbed Autogenês. The triptych Father-Mother-Son forms the metaphysical core of the Sethian mythico-philosophical system. Yet the hypostases are multiplied in what follows: the Son gives birth to four Lights and twelve Aeons, equally divided among the Lights. The Aeons are hypostasized abstract concepts and virtues, such as Truth, Memory, Peace, Understanding, Perfection etc., and together with the higher principles, from which they originated, they constitute the divine Pleroma. Next, the archetypal and perfect Man emerges from the totality of the three prime divine hypostases; he is called Pigeradamas or Geradamas (= Adam the stranger, or ancient Adam). The Aeons form erotic couples, with each couple giving birth to a new Aeon. For reasons not expounded, however, Sophia (who belongs to the Aeons) desires to give birth to a child without the creative contribution of her partner – and she succeeds. This is identified as the prime origin of Evil. The offspring of Sophia is called Yaldabaoth; he is depicted as a lion-like snake, and he is the creator of the sensible world. Yet he is an evil creator, inasmuch as he is ignorant of the higher hypostases and creates an inherently defective world. Originally, this world was devoid of humans. Yet, when Yaldabaoth beheld the form of the archetypal Man on the waters of his world, he determined to create the race of humans, and with the aid of 360 angels he fashioned Adam, into whom he later blew his breath. Because his breath carried in it traces of his mother, Sophia, who constituted a lower impression of Barbelo herself, man acquired a (faint) awareness of his superior lineage, i.e. his origin in the divine Pleroma. Yaldabaoth trapped this consciousness inside the body, and imprisoned it with the fetters of oblivion, thereby rendering the salvation of man extremely difficult. Jesus’ revelation to John is rounded off with the following teaching: if one uses one’s mind properly, that is, the higher part of one’s soul, he or she will be able to gain release from the deception of the material world, find the true gnosis and thus achieve salvation.

Platonizing Sethian treatises

Four works stand out in the corpus of Gnostic literature for their patently Platonizing tenor. These are Zôstrianos (N.H.C. VIII.1), Allogenês (N.H.C. XI.3), the Three Stelae of Seth (N.H.C. VII.5), and Marsanês (N.H.C. X.1). The first two are mentioned by Porphyry (Life of Plotinus 16) as texts that were read out in Plotinus’ seminar and were thoroughly rebutted by Amelius, Plotinus, and perhaps Porphyry himself.

In place of the (common in other Sethian works) descent of a redeemer, who reveals to men the true gnôsis, these texts are styled as revelations originating from a human soul’s mystical ascent to the supra-celestial realm. Diotima’s ladder from the Symposium functions as the Platonic paradigm for the soul’s ascent to the divine hypostases, while the deductions of the second part of the Parmenides are interpreted, just like in Neoplatonism, not as genuine metaphysical questions, but as positive conclusions on the nature of divinity and its diverse manifestations. These texts bear manifest signs of Middle Platonic and Neopythagorean influences. Barbelo, for instance, becomes tri-partitioned into the hypostases of Kalyptos (= concealed), Protophanês (= first-revealed), and Autogenês (= self-begotten) in a manner that brings to mind not only corresponding Orphic teachings, but also the views of Numenius and other Neopythagorean thinkers of the time. Here we also have the first appearance of the triptych Being-Life-Intellect, which is not attested in Neoplatonism prior to Proclus.


Gnostic or Gnosticizing elements that could have found fertile ground in the Platonic circles of late antiquity were curbed because of the Greek tendency to celebrate the beauty and harmony of the sensible world. In fact Plotinus, who in many respects can be considered intellectually akin to the Gnostics, composed a lengthy polemic against them (it was divided into four distinct treatises by Porphyry: Enn. ΙΙΙ.8, V.8, V.5, II.9). The problem with Gnosticism was the sheer impudence latent in the view that the sensible world is evil.

Aspects of ancient Gnosticism have survived over the centuries in various forms, and prominent intellectuals of the modern period (such as William Blake, Arthur Schopenhauer, Herman Melville, Helena Blavatsky, W. B. Yeats, C.G. Jung, Hermann Hesse, Hans Jonas, Laurence Durrell, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Jorge Luis Borges a.o.) have been deeply influenced by it.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Jonas, H. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston, 2001.
  • Meyer, M. ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts. New York, 2007.
  • Robinson, J. M. ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English . San Francisco, 1990.
  • Rudolph, K. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. New York, 1987.
  • Turner, J.D., Moore, E. "Gnosticism." Gerson, L.P. ed. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, τόμος 1ος. Cambridge, 2010.
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