The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Hannah Adams/The Gnostics

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This denomination sprang up in the first century. Several of the disciples of Simon Magus held the principles of his philosophy, together with the profession of Christianity, and were distinguished by the appellation of Gnostics, from their boasting of being able to restore mankind to the knowledge, γνωσις, of the Supreme Being, which had been lost in the world. This party was not conspicuous for its numbers or reputation before the time of Adrian. It derives its origin from the Oriental philosophy. The doctrine of a soul, distinct from the body, which had pre-existed in an angelic state, and was, for some offence committed in that state, degraded, and confined to the body as a punishment, had been the great doctrine of the eastern sages from time immemorial. Not being able to conceive how evil in so great an extent, could be subservient to good, they supposed that good and evil have different origins. So mixed a system as this is, they therefore thought to be unworthy of infinite wisdom and goodness. They looked upon matter as the source of all evil, and argued in this manner: There are many evils in this world, and men seem impelled by a natural instinct, to the practice of those things which reason condemns; but the eternal Mind, from which all spirits derive their existence, must be inaccessible to all kinds of evil, and also of a most perfect and benevolent nature. Therefore, the origin of those evils, with which the universe abounds, must be sought somewhere else than in the Deity. It cannot reside in him who is all perfection; therefore, it must be without him. Now there is nothing without or beyond the Deity but matter; therefore matter is the centre and source of all evil and of all vice. Having taken for granted these principles, they proceeded further, and affirmed, that matter was eternal, and derived its present form, not from the will of the Supreme God, but from the creating power of some inferior intelligence, to whom the world and its inhabitants owed their existence. As a proof of their assertion, they alleged, that it was incredible the Supreme Deity, perfectly good, and infinitely removed from all evil, should either create, or modify matter, which is essentially malignant and corrupt; or, bestow upon it in any degree, the riches of his wisdom and liberality.

In their system it was generally supposed, that all intelligences had only one source, viz. the divine Mind. And to help out the doctrine concerning the origin of evil, it was imagined, that though the divine Being himself was essentially and perfectly good, those intelligences, or spirits, who were derived from him, and especially those who were derived from them, were capable of depravation. It was further imagined, that the depravation of those inferior intelligent beings from the Supreme, was by a kind of efflux or emanation, a part of the substance being detached from the rest, but capable of being absorbed into it again. To those intelligences derived mediately or immediately from the divine Mind, the author of this system did not scruple to give the name of gods, thinking some of them capable of a power of modifying matter.

The oriental sages expected the arrival of an extraordinary messenger of the Most High upon earth; a messenger invested with a divine authority; endowed with the most eminent sanctity and wisdom; and peculiarly appointed to enlighten with the knowledge of the Supreme Being, the darkened minds of miserable mortals, and to deliver them from the chains of the tyrants and usurpers of this world. When, therefore, some of these philosophers perceived that Christ and his followers wrought miracles of the most amazing kind, and also of the most salutary nature to mankind, they were easily induced to connect their fundamental doctrines with Christianity, by supposing him the great messenger expected from above, to deliver men from the power of the malignant genii, or spirits, to whom, according to their doctrine, the world was subjected, and to free their souls from the dominion of corrupt matter. But though they considered him as the Supreme God, sent from the pleroma, or habitation of the everlasting Father, they deny his divinity, looking upon him as inferior to the Father. They rejected his humanity, upon the supposition that everything concrete and corporeal is in itself essentially and intrinsically evil. Hence the greatest part of the Gnostics denied that Christ was clothed with a real body, or that he suffered really for the sake of mankind, the pains and sorrows which he is said to have endured in the sacred history. They maintained, that he came to mortals with no other view, than to deprive the tyrants of this world of their influence upon virtuous and heaven-born souls, and destroying the empire of these wicked spirits, to teach man kind how they might separate the divine mind from the impure body, and render the former worthy of being united to the Father of spirits.

Their persuasion, that evil resided in matter, rendered them unfavourable to wedlock; and led them to hold the doctrine of the resurrection of the body in great contempt. They considered it as a mere clog to the immortal soul; and supposed, that nothing was meant by it, but either a moral change in the minds of men, which took place before they died; or that it signified the ascent of the soul to its proper abode in the superior regions, when it was disengaged from its earthly encumbrance. The notion, which this denomination entertained, that the malevolent genii presided in nature, and that from them proceed all diseases and calamities, wars, and desolations, induced them to apply themselves to the study of magic, to weaken the powers, or suspend the influences of these malignant agents.

As the Gnostics were philosophic and speculative people, and affected refinement, they did not make much account of public worship, or of positive institutions of any kind. They are said, not to have had any order in their churches.

As many of this denomination thought that Christ had not any real body, and therefore had not any proper flesh and blood, it seems on this account, when they used to celebrate the Eucharist, they did not make any use of wine, which represents the blood of Christ, but of water only.

We have fewer accounts of what they thought or did with respect to baptism, but it seems that some of them at least disused it. And it is said, that some abstained from the Eucharist, and from prayer.

The greatest part of this denomination adopted rules of life, which were full of austerity, recommending a strict and rigorous abstinence, and prescribed the most severe bodily mortifications, from a notion, that they had a happy influence in purifying and enlarging the mind, and in disposing it for the contemplation of celestial things. That some of the Gnostics, in consequence of making no account of the body, might think, that there was neither good nor evil in anything relating to it; and therefore suppose themselves at liberty to indulge in any sensual excesses, is not impossible; though it is more probable, that everything of this nature would be greatly exaggerated by the enemies of this denomination.