Plotinus Against the Gnostics

Since publication of James Robertson’s The Nag Hammadi Library (1977), there has been a big upsurge of interest in the loose bundle of religious tendencies under the Roman Empire known retrospectively as “gnosticism”. These tended to emphasize extreme forms of transcendence, and to reject the classical notion of the inherent goodness of life in the finite world.

Hans Jonas’ 1958 classic The Gnostic Religion was an early sympathetic account that impressed me in my youth. Jonas gave a somewhat philosophical reading of general gnostic principles, emphasizing the claim that a direct personal experience of metaphysical realities could transform one’s being. I now think that true wisdom does not come from any immediate experience, although immediate experience may encapsulate wisdom already acquired. In light of Kant, I think the idea of direct experience of transcendent metaphysical realities is a category mistake.

Surviving gnostic texts nonetheless contain many bits of inherent interest to the historian of religions, illustrating results of a rather wild cross-cultural fusion between nonstandard Jewish, Christian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and even Buddhist elements. Related themes found their way into Ismaili Shi’ism, Suhrawardian Illuminationist Sufism, Catharism, and Jewish Kabbalah. Particularly in the Shi’ite versions, there was at times an element of concern for social justice. This kind of formation, however, seems to be prone to developing an authoritarian or cult-like character, e.g., “I am better than you because I have the secret wisdom.”

Prior to the 19th century, gnosticism was known in the West almost exclusively from extremely hostile heresiological sources, which were often not far from the mentality that groups we don’t like eat babies for breakfast. There was an underground interest in gnosticism among occultists and Jungians, but only in the later 20th century did studies of it acquire broader intellectual respectability.

The pendulum has now perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction of rather uncritical enthusiasm. In this context, the independent critique of gnosticism by Plotinus is worth recalling.

The largest single treatise of Plotinus, the great founder of neoplatonism, the so-called Großschrift, was divided into four pieces by his student and editor Porphyry, who gave its conclusion the title “Against the Gnostics”. The three preceding parts, which expressed related views of Plotinus in more positive terms, were “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, “On the Intellectual Beauty”, and “That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect, and on the Good”.

Plotinus criticized the gnostics for making arrogant claims to possess otherwise hidden metaphysical knowledge; for their negative attitudes toward life in this world; and for their feverish multiplication of metaphysical principles. In my youth I had some sympathy for the “esoteric” view, and for general feelings of alienation from the existing world order. However, I have come to believe that the truest spirituality has a universal rather than esoteric character. Also, I have really always believed that nature and worldly being are good in themselves, and that social ills are due to us and not to unjust cosmic forces. I have come to think that Plotinus’ notions of the One, Intellect, and Soul are too strong, but still consider him a major figure. (See also The One?; Power of the One?; Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?; Subjectivity in Plotinus).

Hegel offers many enriching views of the broader matters addressed by Plotinus here.