JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl


§ 59.

8. Basilides, also a native of Antioch, lived, like Saturninus, under the Emperor Hadrian. Towards the close of his life (A.D. 130) he taught in Egypt and chiefly in Alexandria. We have two accounts of his system differing widely from one another; the one furnished by Irenaeus, the other by Hippolytus. We give first the account of Irenaeus.

9. According to Irenaeus, Basilides held the Unbegotten and Unnameable to be first in the scale of being; from him proceeded the Nous, from this again the Logos, from the Logos the Phronesis, from the Phronesis the Sophia and Dynamis, from these the Virtues and the chief angels. By these angels the first or highest heaven was formed. From the highest angels proceeded other angels who formed the second heaven (or sphere), and thus the process continued, until 365 orders of angels had been successively produced, and as many celestial spheres successively formed. The ruler of the celestial spheres is Abraxas, whose name contains the number 365 (1+2+100+1+60+1+200 according to the numerical significance of the Greek letters). The angels who formed the lowest sphere, fashioned our world also, and are its rulers.

10. The interposing of so many intermediate beings between God and the world indicates the dualistic character of the entire system. This feature becomes still more marked in the doctrines regarding physical nature and the origin of man. The body of man was given him by the lower or world-creating powers, his soul comes from a higher realm. The soul has had its origin in the realm of light, and therefore it lives here below in a strange land. It has been degraded to life within the body in punishment of a fault. All the evil that man has to endure in this life is, consequently, the punishment of guilt which his soul has contracted, either in the present life or in a prior state. Martyrdom itself Basilides holds to be a punishment of this kind. These chastisements may, however, be means of purification for the soul.

11. It is the duty of the soul to free itself from the material element with which, contrary to the requirements of its nature, it is invested. This deliverance is to he accomplished by subduing sensuality and sensual appetite, and by rising through faith to the consciousness of the soul's higher nature. Basilides does not condemn marriage; he would retain it as a means of resisting the persistent assaults of sensual passion. The complete purification of the soul is also helped by the process of transmigration. There cannot be a resurrection of the body, for the body is derived from matter, it is of its nature antagonistic to the soul, and its reunion with the soul would be a misfortune for the latter, not an advantage.

12. The human race was originally placed under the rule of the angels who created this world. These angels divided among themselves the government of the peoples of the earth, their Archon or chief ruler reserved to himself the government of the Jewish people. He then strove to subject all other peoples to his own chosen nation. But he was opposed by the other nations and their ruling angels, and thus conflict and confusion arose. In pity, the Supreme God sent His own Son amongst men to free them from the control of the powers which rule the world, to make known to them their own higher nature, and to point out to them the way in which they could and should rise above the angels who formed the world, and even above the Archon himself.

13. The Nous, thereupon took the semblance of man, in order to manifest himself to mankind. He was not himself crucified. He substituted Simon of Cyrene for himself, by exchanging outward appearance with the latter. Whoever believes in the individual who was crucified, is still under the dominion of the world-ruling angels. We must believe in the eternal Nous, who underwent the death of the cross in appearance only. The real believers are the elect, the men of real knowledge, the Gnostics. These are above the law; nothing can defile them, not even the offering of sacrifice to the heathen gods; the difference between good and evil is no longer of importance to them.

14. The account of Hippolytus agrees with that of Irenaeus in this, that in it Basilides assigns the god of the Jews (as well as the gods of the heathen) a limited power, and ascribes the redemption accomplished through Christ to the Supreme God. But Hippolytus differs from Irenaeus in this, that he represents as interposed between God and the angels not the Nous, Phronesis, &c., but three huiotêtes (sonships), produced by the Supreme God -- the Non-existent. The mutual relations which his arrangement of these three huiotêtes involves, and the various functions which they discharge belong to the domain of fable. We give some details below.{1} Which of these two accounts represents the genuine teaching of Basilides, and which represents merely the teachings of his followers is a question still undecided. The teaching of Basilides was continued by his son Isidorus.

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{1} According to Hippolytus, Basilides taught that, originally there was absolute nothing. From this nothing came forth the germ of the world, the non-existent god having produced by an act of will (not by emanation), that original unity which carried within it the pansperma (or, according to Clement of Alexandria, the sugchusis archikê) of the universe. In this germ was contained a threefold sonship (uiotês); the first raised itself at once to the non-existent god, the second, less subtle and less pure, was raised aloft by the first, who bestowed the holy spirit upon it; the third, which remains unpurified, was detained in the mass of the pansperma. The non-existent God and the two first huiotêtes inhabit the supramundane space which surrounds the world, but is separated from it by a fixed sphere (stereôma). The holy spirit having risen with the second sonship to the supramundane region, returned subsequently to the middle sphere, and thus became the pneuma methorion. Within this nether world dwells the world-ruler, unable to rise above the stereôma, but fondly imagining that he is the supreme god, that there is nothing above him. Tbe law-giving god occupies a position below him. Each of these divinities has generated a son. The first of these archontes dwells in the ethereal region; his is the Ogdoas who ruled the earth from Adam to Moses. The second -- the Hebdomadas, dwells in the region beneath the moon; he ruled from Moses to Christ. As soon as the gospel or knowledge of the supramundane world (he tôn huperkosmiôn gnôsis) was proclaimed, and the son of the world-ruler, through the medium of the spirit, received the light of the supramundane huiotês, the World-ruler came to have knowledge of the supreme God, and was seized with fear. But this fear was the beginning of wisdom. He repented of his arrogance, in common with the god who is subordinate to him; and all the principalities and powers of the 365 heavens, received the preaching of the gospel. The light which proceeded from the supramundane sonship enlightened Jesus. The third huiotês was now purified, and rose to the sphere already inhabited by the beatified sonship -- to the non-existent God. As soon as these several essences reach their proper sphere, each becomes ignorant of the degrees above itself, that there may be no jealousy. Cfr. Ueberweg.