Gnosis and the Monad

An essay on the inherent limitations and paradoxes in the Monad doctrine.

Gnosis is a process where the mind has to catch up with the experience of the Spirit. This is the process of spiritual growth. As an example, when I first had my experiences of Gnosis I originally exchanged the judicial God of “orthodox” Christianity for the unknown Good God of Gnosticism. At the time this was consistent with my experiences of Divinity.

But in the direction I have moved I found that even the concepts of God in Gnostic tradition are likewise limited–as it must be because our minds have natural limitations. And for me it is always a matter of seeing the motive behind certain ideas and not the perfection of the ideas themselves. The Gnostic concept of God is meant to instill a more lofty and worthy conception of Divinity rather than adhere to a crude concept of divine providence as is found in the Books of Moses or in Hesiod (Plato, Republic, II, 378).

In my view, based on my research, the concepts of God in Gnostic tradition are based on Plato and Pythagoras, and especially the latter. For me the “Monad” is a concept taken from people who may not really be Gnostics. To me the “Monad” is an intellectual invention and is part of a theory to describe the origin of the universe based on mathmatics. It is an ingenious theory but it can never really prove that everything simply began with One. The “Monad” is not a true product of Revelation but is a concept that can be directly traced to the rationalizations and calculations of other men.

To me, the very notion that our universe had a beginning, or has an end, is the product of naturally limited minds that are influence by an environment filled with beginnings and endings, as is the case in our world and in human life. But the universe we live in transcends all those little concepts that we live by and which define our limited lives.

For me the “Monad” cannot encompasse what Divinity really is and what our universe really is. Moreover the Monad can never really convey a true theology or myth free of corruption. In Gnostic tradition these problems come together in the Tripartite Tractate. The writer concludes that God ultimately is the source of evil, viz. that evil exists because of God’s predetermined will. Hence the author wrote “man should experience the great evil, which is death, that is complete ignorance of the Totality, and that he should experience all the evils which come from this and, after the deprivations and cares which are in these, that he should receive of the greatest good… Because of the transgression of the first man, death ruled. It was accustomed to slay every man…because of the organization of the Father’s Will, of which we spoke previously” (107f. ET: H. Attridge, D. Mueller, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pg. 89).

To me this is to exchange a God that inflicts evil out of anger for a God who inflicts evil with a smile on his face. There ultimately is no difference. Moreover I must point out that even the early Gnostics/ Monists disagreed on this issue. Elsewhere in the Nag Hammadi Library this very philosophy, as stated above, is condemned in the Book of Thomas the Athlete. Here Thomas asks Jesus: “What teaching shall we give to these miserable mortals who say, ‘We have come to [do] good and not to curse,’ and will [say] further ‘If we had not been born in the flesh we would not have known iniquity’ ”?

Jesus answers Thomas: “To tell the truth, do not think of these as human beings, but regard them as animals. As animals devour each other so people like this devour each other. They are deprived of the kingdom… They pursue derangement not realizing their madness but thinking they are wise.” (141, M. Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 242.)

Note that Jesus condemns this kind of thinking in the strongest terms. People who argue that God has a purpose for evil, and thus for the world, choose to believe such things because in reality they love the world and are not really troubled by the evil that goes on. For this reason Jesus condemns them like animals—which is a metaphor for the material man who loves materiality and worships the material god.

These contradictions allow me to understand why it was that Gnostic tradition gradually moved from monistic systems in the second century toward dualistic systems as seen with Mani. By the age of Augustine, Manicheism was the most popular form of Gnosticism. And Manicheism based its doctrines on a universe of two principles rather than the monism of the earlier Valentinians and other sects. In Mani’s doctrine there was no one God over it all and Darkness had its own domain in the universe. I used to be skeptical of this concept because I accepted that darkness was but the absence of Light, viz. that darkness was a shadow cast by an error that emanated from the perfect Monad. I realize however that this is implausible, and that it is unrealistic to believe that there is some supreme Being who wants to share his realm with darkness and allow a world where the defenseless are massacred or brutally enslaved, or where little children are raped and murdered. There is simply no reason for me to choose to believe that “God”, some supreme Being, plans for these things to happen, for some “higher purpose” that we’re supposedly too ignorant to understand.

The later Dualists were people who understood that the Monist doctrine was unworkable and this is why the early Monist sects were eclipsed by the Manicheans and the movements that followed. Mani taught that evil existed, and the soul existed, because the forces of darkness invaded the realm of Light and mixed with the Light. This caused a separate realm of dualism to exist where conflicted beings, not wholley Light, and not wholley Dark, came into existence. The God of Light organized the cosmos which functions as a mechanism to recover the Light from the Darkness.

What I describe is a myth. But for me the truth behind it is that our universe is something that has always existed and has always included spiritual light and spiritual darkness. Mani understood that there was not some single God in control of it all, or as source of it all. He described it as a struggle between two primeval realms of Light and Darkness. I think the truth behind this (and not taking everything Mani says as strict truth) is that our universe has always been comprised of matter and energy and spiritual light and spiritual darkness. Each has its place and the latter is not “evil” in and of itself. It only manifests as evil when it is in conflict with other elements. As an illustration: a lion in its habitat is not a threat to humans; unless humans wander into the lion’s habitat. The resulting conflict and the grave injury that the lion inflicts on the human can be regarded as a form of evil.

In Mani’s myth and the earlier Gnostic myths we humans are described as being composite and the product of an error where spiritual light and spiritual darkness combine to form the human soul and its dualistic nature. This dualism in turn opens the paradox of good and evil, and a world where evil things happen to good people. But the difference is that in early Gnostic monism this providence proceeds from the One, whereas with Mani there is no one god behind it all or in control of it all. Personally I find the latter scenario to be more meaninful and logically consistent.

If atheism means denying that there is one God who is creator, ruler and master of all, then I plead guilty; I’m an atheist.

On the other hand, I do have revelation of Divinity and the Divine Fulness and I believe it is a domain and a power in and of itself. Light does not want to be mixed with Darkness and Darkness does not want to be mixed with Light. Each has its own natural place and its own natural eternity. But when they intermingle, conflict and evil come into existence. Without question we humans are a species in conflict and the shadow of evil follows nearly everything that we do.

Gnosis is our salvation; and through the spiritual growth that comes through Gnosis we are transformed gradually from souls of duality into Divine beings of pure Light. And to the Pleroma we are called to return, from Light to Light.

By Jim West. Copyright © February 12, 2013; revised Feb. 23, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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  1. #1 by Aeon Eye on May 7, 2013 - 3:28 pm

    The Tripartite Tractate reads something from the Origenist camp or possibly by Origen himself. It’s thinly disguised Catholic theology through Valentinian buzz words. It condemns the serpent and the doctrine of original sin can actually be found in this text. It could’ve been an orthodox forgery intended to win over Gnostics.

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