An early Christian ascetic (“desert father”) praying in the wilderness

There’s a popular trope, still in circulation these days, that the Gnostics were libertines who lived lives of flagrant hedonism. This notion about Gnostic ethics originated with the so-called “heresiologists” of the second century – the forerunners of what we today think of as Christian orthodoxy, who wrote extensively against the Gnostics and other competing early Christian groups.[1]

In the ancient world, it was banal for polemicists to characterize their opponents as libertines who lacked any kind of morals, and in particular as extreme sexual deviants. (Indeed, this is still frequently the case today.) Pagans, Jews, and Christians of all kinds all made such claims about their opponents’ ethics or lack thereof. Since these claims were a rhetorical strategy so commonplace as to be something of a cliché, none of them can be taken at face value as accurate descriptions of anyone’s morality. The heresiologists’ depiction of Gnostic ethics as nothing more than a particularly depraved variety of hedonism must be considered in this light.[2]

The texts written by the Gnostics themselves, such as those that were discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library, tell a wildly different story about what Gnostic ethics really were. Rather than permitting – let alone recommending – the unrestrained indulgence of every passing wish, the Gnostic scriptures unanimously advocate a harsh asceticism and thorough detachment from any and all earthly desires.[3]

To cite but a few examples, Marsanes instructs its readers to “control yourselves, receive the imperishable seed [the divine spirit], bear fruit, and do not become attached to your possessions.”[4] The Secret Book of John recommends the cultivation of apatheia, the absence of all desire and emotion, which was also the chief moral ideal of the Stoics in late antiquity. Sex is treated as particularly problematic, a ghoulish parody of the spiritual union and asexual multiplication of beings in Heaven.[5]

Perhaps the most explicit and extensive example of the otherworldly, ascetic orientation of Gnostic ethics comes from the Book of Thomas (which carries the subtitle The Contender Writing to the Perfect, and which shouldn’t be confused with the similarly-titled Gospel of Thomas). Before giving direct exhortations to live in accordance with a radical standard of spiritual and moral purity, this text has Christ deliver a cosmological rationale for it:

All bodies have come into being in the same irrational way that animals are produced, and so they are visible, as creatures lusting after creatures. Those that are above, however, do not exist like those that are visible. Rather, they live from their own root, and their crops nourish them. But the visible bodies feed on creatures that are like them, and so the bodies are subject to change. Whatever is subject to change will perish and be lost, and henceforth has no hope of life, because this body is an animal body. Just as an animal body perishes, these modeled forms also will perish. Are they not from sexual intercourse like that of the animals? If the body too is from intercourse, how will it give birth to anything different from them? So, then, you are children until you become perfect.[6]

The goal of ethics, the text goes on to say, is for “all the chosen ones” – that is, the Gnostics – to “lay down their animal nature”[7] for the sake of their spirit.

The Book of Thomas then condemns people who live normal, earthly (“animal”) lives. Christ proclaims that to live in such an unethical manner is to inflict immense spiritual harm upon oneself:

Woe to you, godless people, who have no hope, who are secure in things that do not last.

Woe to you who hope in the flesh and in the prison that will perish. … Your hope is based upon the world, and your god is this present life. You are destroying your souls.

Woe to you with the fire that burns within you. It is insatiable.

Woe to you because of the wheel that turns in your minds.

Woe to you because of the smoldering within you. It will devour your flesh visibly, tear your souls secretly, and prepare you for each other. …

And woe to you because of the powers of your bodies, for they will mistreat you.

Woe to you because of the actions of the evil demons.

Woe to you who entice your limbs with fire. Who will sprinkle a restful dew on you, to extinguish the many fires within you, and your burning?[8]

Christ tells “the chosen ones” to live in the opposite way:

Blessed are you who understand beforehand the temptations and flee from things that are alien [to the spirit]. …

Watch and pray that you may not remain in the flesh, but that you may leave the bondage of the bitterness of this life. And when you pray, you will find rest, for you have left pain and reproach behind. When you leave the pains and the passions of the body, you will receive rest from the Good One. You will reign with the King, united with him and he with you, from now on and forever.[9]

Gnostic Ethics and Dualism

The ascetic lifestyle advocated by the Gnostic texts made perfect sense in the context of the Gnostics’ overall worldview – and, in fact, it was probably the only kind of lifestyle that made sense in the context of that worldview.

Gnosticism was based on a particular type of theological dualism called “anticosmicism:” the belief that this world is absurd and evil, and that its very existence is contrary to the will of the perfectly good God. The human soul, which is a fragment of God, has infinite value, whereas the mundane, physical world has no value whatsoever.

This world, the Gnostics asserted, hadn’t been created by God, but rather by a lesser, ignorant, malevolent being: the demiurge, sometimes called “Yaldabaoth.” When the demiurge and his helpers, the demonic archons, created the world, they imprisoned sparks of divinity from Heaven in bodies that they had created in order to be able to control them. With bodies came bodily desires and mundane human desires more generally, which were the means by which the archons kept the heavenly souls trapped and ignorant of their true origin and nature. In fact, each earthly desire that an individual experienced had been consciously placed in that person at that time by the archons, such that a “normal” human life was tantamount to demonic possession.[10]

Gnostic spirituality, therefore, wasn’t a matter of achieving any kind of harmony with this world, earthly society, or the creator. Instead, it was a matter of achieving liberation from all of them through the mystical awareness the Gnostics called “gnosis.”[11]

The purpose of Gnostic ethics was to facilitate the experience of gnosis. That’s why the Gnostics placed so much emphasis on abstaining from worldly pleasures and emotional participation in society. The less one was attached to worldly things, the freer the spark of God within oneself would be.[12]

The Social Radicalism of Gnostic Ethics

The Gnostics’ view of ethics was impossible to square with more conventional ethical systems, including those of many of the Gnostics’ fellow Christians. The Gnostic Gospel of Mary frames this conflict in particularly clear terms. Mary’s Jesus forthrightly declares that “There is no such thing as sin” in the sense in which “sin” is conventionally understood. Instead, true sin is “adultery,” a metaphorical way of describing being attached to the body. That is, the incorporeal God is one’s true partner, and being attached to one’s own body at the expense of attachment to God is adultery and hence sin.[13]

For the Gnostics, ethical behavior was overwhelmingly a matter of how one acted toward one’s own soul and the wider divinity of which it was a part. For “proto-orthodox” Christians like the heresiologists, however, ethical behavior was first and foremost a matter of how one acted toward others. Sin and righteousness largely belonged to the social sphere of life, whereas for the Gnostics, the social sphere just wasn’t ultimately important one way or another.[14]

Proto-orthodox Christians, in the words of Elaine Pagels, “heard church leaders constantly warning against incurring sin in the most practical affairs of life: cheating in business, lying to a spouse, tyrannizing children or slaves, ignoring the poor.”[15] While the Gnostics certainly wouldn’t have condoned any of those things, their focus was elsewhere. The very fabric of the universe was evil, so of course people were going to act in evil ways toward each other. It was inevitable as long as one was still living for this world. A morality that just said which earthly actions were preferable to other earthly actions was inconsequential in the big picture. So, the Gnostics said, the solution is to liberate oneself from this world, and, perhaps, to help others do so as well. Trying to make others’ earthly lives – or even one’s own earthly life – more pleasant was ultimately beside the point.

The Gnostics’ intensely inward focus also put them at odds with the wider pagan society in which all Christians, including the Gnostics, were still a minority at the time. The civic-minded Platonist philosopher Plotinus, for example, severely criticized the Gnostic insistence on bodily and social aloofness as not only philosophically incorrect but a danger to society. Plotinus even went so far as to accuse the Gnostics of not having any ethics at all.[16] This latter charge was, of course, an overstatement. But the fact that Plotinus found Gnostic ethics to be so far from “normal” ethics as to be unrecognizable as ethics shows just how iconoclastic Gnostic ethics were.

So the Gnostics’ critics often made false assertions about the content of Gnostic ethics in the hope of strengthening their case against them, accusing them of being libertines and/or of being completely amoral. But even when we strip away those falsehoods, we can see why non-Gnostic Christians – and Roman pagans like Plotinus, too – would have seen Gnostic ethics as profoundly threatening. After all, by the standards of their time – and even by today’s standards – the Gnostics were radical individualists who cared for little other than their own spiritual development. They saw human society as intrinsically wicked and its mores as contemptible and unworthy of being taken seriously. Even when the Gnostics did adhere to social mores, as the Valentinians in particular seem to have done,[17] they did so out of unfortunate practical necessity, not because they saw those mores as being just or valuable in and of themselves.[18] To people who were emotionally invested in upholding some particular social arrangement, the Gnostics and their ethical system seemed grotesque and treasonous. And to the Gnostics, such people’s ethical systems were arbitrary and oppressive.

References:

[1] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 126.

[2] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 138.

[3] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 126.

[4] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 53.

[5] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 162-163.

[6] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Book of Thomas.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 240.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 243-244.

[9] Ibid. p. 244-245.

[10] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 282.

[11] Ibid. p. 270-271.

[12] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 126.

[13] King, Karen L. 2008. “The Gospel of Mary with the Greek Gospel of Mary.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 738.

[14] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 146-147.

[15] Ibid. p. 147.

[16] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 266-267.

[17] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 24.

[18] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 268.