A Gnostic Icarus? Traces of the Controversy Between Plotinus and the Gnostics Over a Surprising Source for the Fall of Sophia: The Pseudo-Platonic 2nd Letter

In: The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
Author: Zeke Mazur 1
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  • 1 Université Laval

In several iterations of the Gnostic ontogenetic myth, we find variations on an intriguing notion: namely, that the first rupture in the otherwise eternal and continuous procession of ‘aeons’ in the divine ‘pleroma’ is caused by a cognitive overreach and failure (the “fall of Sophia”). As much as it might contain a distant echo of certain myths concerning hubris in the classical tradition or in biblical literature, this general schema of cognitive overreach—cognitive failure—fall has no obvious parallel in Greek philosophy prior to Plotinus, in some of whose more pessimistic accounts of hypostatic procession we find a similar schema, in which the generation of each ontological stratum occurs as the result of a cognitive failure on the superjacent level. If Plotinus borrowed this schema from the Gnostics, one might ask how the latter came up with it in the first place. In response, this paper makes the following three points. [1] Gnostic thinkers ultimately derived this schema from a particular juxtaposition of two profoundly aporetic Platonic passages referring to the travails of the individual soul, one certainly genuine (the description of the unexplained but catastrophic fall of the soul that fails to follow the heavenly train of the gods through the intelligible realm at Phaedrus 248c2-d3), the other quite possibly spurious (the claim that the cause of all evils is the desire, and the failure, of the soul to understand the nature of the notoriously enigmatic ‘King,’ ‘Second,’ and ‘Third,’ at 2nd Letter 312e1-313a6). [2] The Platonizing Sethian Gnostics closest to Plotinus also employed this latter source text to justify their conception of the individual soul, whose vicissitudes were understood to parallel those of Sophia. [3] This hypothesis is confirmed by evidence of tacit anti-Gnostic argumentation alluding to the 2nd Letter throughout Plotinus’ oeuvre.

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  • 10

    See Z. Mazur (2005), 104-107.

  • 23

    See Rist (1965).

  • 30

    H. Dörrie (1970).

  • 32

    According to H. Saffrey and L. Westerink (1974) pp. xxvi-xxxv, Moderatus’ doctrine of three Ones (apud Simplicius, In Phys. 230.34-231.12 Diels) depends upon the ‘Three Kings.’ The earliest direct quotation occurs in Apuleius Apologia 3644.

  • 34

    J. Mansfeld (1992) 204-207 argues against the accuracy of Hippolytus’ claim of direct influence from the letter on Valentinus, since it is in line with his polemic strategy of tracing all heresy back to Greek philosophical antecedents. Given the amount of Neopythagorean doctrine self-evidently embedded within the Valentinian system, however, there is little reason to doubt the letter played some role; indeed, H.-J. Krämer (1964) 251 treats Hippolytus’ report as reliable.

  • 58

    See Z. Mazur (2013).

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