Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. - Free Online Library (2024)

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These papers are the belated fruits of a conference held in 1985, which aimed at a demarcation of the phenomena referred to in the title. One obstacle to the project is that neither of these terms denotes a unified ideology: the Neoplatonists can boast at least a traceable history of succession and a common use of certain cardinal axioms in the exegesis of Plato; but our word |Gnostic' covers a host of transient and sometimes hostile movements. The fact is recognized by some contributors, but most apply the epithet with a freedom that belies the limited scope of their inquiries.

Some seem all but indifferent to the project of the volume. Gersh, in an acute elucidation of the origins and content of the Latin Asclepius, makes barely any reference to the Coptic fragment found at Nag Hammadi. Bregman, for all his salutary remarks about the difficulty of ascertaining the loyalty of Synesius, stands apart from the leading issues of the conference. Manchester, writing on the |noetic triad' of the later Neoplatonists, does not attempt any detailed study of its occurrences in the Coptic Zostrianus and Allogenes, nor does he convince me that late antiquity posited only one such triad. This, like all other treatments, fails to note the ambiguity in the concept of a median term, which may be either (a) an intermediary in the procession of the third term from the first, or (b) the reconciling progeny of both.

More useful is Turner's thorough and convincing argument that the Allogenes group of tractates represents the |Sethian' Platonism attacked by Plotinus in Enneads, ii. 9. Unfortunately, his analysis of the Coptic texts, and his argument that they bequeathed the noetic triad to Plotinus, do not take into account the mutilations and additions to which such fragile artefacts must be exposed. The same may be said of Pearson's promising thesis that the Nag Hammadi Codices echo rituals of ascent and union comparable to those of the theurgist. A moment's speculation on the inevitable effects of ritual usage will suffice to explode the |consensus' that the present Zostrianus and Allogenes are the books that Plotinus knew.

All claims for the influence of the Gnostics on Plotinus presuppose an opinion on the relation of both parties to Numenius. Essays are devoted to him by Wallis (the late convener of the conference) and Barzan; but, these, while full and competent, add little to the present state of knowledge. As Barzan observes, Numenius seems to divorce the Platonic Demiurge and the God of Aristotle, while Plotinus upholds the unity of Nous; but should we rest content with the assumption that Numenius' metaphysics (unlike Plato's) can be deduced from the most literal construction of his myths?

On Plotinus' treatise there is little room to be original. Evagriou shows again, by a comparison with Porphyry, that the case against the Gnostics was in large part only a case against the Christians. The bolder Pepin fails to avoid perversity: while his parallels between Plotinus and Valentinus may be significant, the universal substrate of the Naassenes is not the Plotinian One, nor s the Sophia of Valentinus the downward-looking aeon of the Gnostics, and the |Docetics' of Hippolytus should not be adduced until one has proved their bearing on the case.

Two essays in self-definition against the Manichees, one by a Christian author and one by a Platonist, are judiciously though briskly compared by Stroumsa. (But were the Manichees Gnostics? The question is not raised by any contributor.) Sweeney's learned and diligent demonstration that word |self' has a peculiar sense when used to expound the doctrines of Plotinus or of Mani will perhaps surprise fewer readers than he imagines: all rendering of Greek are approximates, and we except the limits of approximation to become apparent in the course of use.

On the larger question of the relation of Gnostic texts to Platonism, Armstrong's article is a panacea for confusion. After noting the ambiguities which still impede discussions of dualism, he distinguishes the |Dark Other' of the later Neoplatonists (a necessary and eternal complement to the Monad) from the erring female principle of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Equally sound, though sparse, are the analogies drawn by Dillon between the contents of the pleroma and the Ideas which middle Platonism locates in the mind of God.

Scholarship has gained little from three attempts to marry the subject of the volume with aesthetics. Sismanian has produced (no doubt intentionally) a helter-skelter of puns, neologisms, and interjections which would serve as well for Schelling, Derrida, Freud, or Jacob Boehme as for any attested form of Gnosticism. Cox Miller, whose study of myth professes, without defining either term, to show that Gnosticism is not dualistic, has left unread a number of the most important passages in Plotinus and carries freedom beyond all bounds in her attempt to reconcile him with Apuleius. Anton assumes unwisely that the ancients recognised the arts as a single category under the name of demiourgia: theurgy, as the new rival to conventional Platonism, may have claimed to supersede the divine inspiration of the poet, but Platonists had not maintained that the painter was also a medium for the gods.

Especially rewarding are the studies of themes from middle Platonism in particular Gnostic texts. Perkins shows that Nag Hammadi texts adapt the notion of a sleeping Logos from such authors as Philo, Plutarch, and Alcinous/Albinus, but do not follow them in seeing the beauty of the visible world as a foretaste of an intenser quality in the upper realm. Kenney finds affinities between the Tripartite Tractate and Numenius, and notes that, since Sophia is now the Logos and the fall is predetermined, the tractate evinces only a modified enmity to the visible creation. Indeed, one wishes that some of the contributors had gone on to ask whether Nag Hammadi Codices need be Gnostic texts at all.

Williams demonstrates that there is a doctrine of double rather than triple providence, in the Apocryphon of John, which, if we allow such texts their proper weight, will help us to make sense of Apuleius without gratuitous emendation. Hanco*ck makes a digest of the terms denied to the highest principle in Gnostic texts and in the Enneads, revealing a similarity in nomenclature but a greater breadth of application in the Gnostic writings. The object lesson in independent thought is Mortley's piece on the Gospel of Truth, which rightly doubts its Valentinian provenance, suggests a plausible milieu in the Arian controversy and relates its surprising contents to Platonic speculation on the ontology of names.

Of the collection as a whole it must be said that it is less illuminating than it ought to be. Too much that is old is repeated, too much that is undefined or controversial is taken for granted, too much that is new is jejune or perverse, and the larger consequence is rarely drawn because the broader questions are not asked. If the quest for religious or philosophical definitions is achievable (and that is no more obvious than in the case of other definitions), it will, like every quest, be an achievement for the individual seeker, and not for a committee of twenty-one.

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Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. - Free Online Library (2024)


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