[ilds] antinomian vs. ascetic gnostics

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Mon Aug 2 12:00:05 PDT 2010

Bruce Redwine wrote:
> "Where you wish to conquer indulge and refine, never prohibit" (p. 
> 308). This reminds me of Blake's /Proverbs of Hell /and his philosophy 
> of excess: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," 
> "Prisons are built with stone of law, brothels with bricks of 
> religion," "The cistern contains; the fountain overflows," etc. Is 
> there a connection outside of Durrell's rampant imagination?
You are perhaps not alone in wondering, Bruce.

Most lay people tend to think of gnosticism in terms of 
asceticism--i.e., the material world is regrettable, so those in quest 
for gnosis should separate from it. I think that you will know the 
apocryphal lines from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," perhaps the classic 
statement in literature:

>         The following day, Bioy called me from Buenos Aries. He told
>         me he had before him the article on Uqbar, in volume XLVI of
>         the encyclopedia. The heresiarch's name was not forthcoming,
>         but there was a note on his doctrine, formulated in words
>         almost identical to those he had repeated, though perhaps
>         literally inferior. He had recalled: /Copulation and mirrors
>         are abominable/. The text of the encyclopedia said: /For one
>         of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or
>         (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are
>         abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe/.

Durrell, being Durrell (& Blakean???), goes "against that grain" of 
gnostic puritanism (cf. also Huysmans?), having his characters speak in 
epigraphs and complete paragraphs about the antinomian side of gnosticism.

Look first to Forster on this ("Section III: The Spiritual City: 
Christianity: Gnosticism"), where you will find "Consequently if we wish 
to be good we must be bad" (76).

Also, elsewhere:

>         a) As to cultus, Gnosticism produced two opposite movements
>         which are comparable with puritanism and ritualism
>         respectively. The abhorrence of matter led some consistently
>         to the utmost simplicity of worship. Some rejected all
>         sacraments and other outward means of grace, and the
>         Prodicians rejected even prayer (Epiphan. Hoer. xxvi.;. Clem.
>         Alex. Strom, i. 15 [304], yii. 7 [722]). On the other hand,
>         many groups, especially the Marcosians, went to the opposite
>         extreme with a symbolic and mystic pomp in worship. This,
>         while inconsistent with the Gnostic views of matter, is in
>         line with the ideas of magico-mystical salvation indicated
>         above. Sacraments were numerous, rites many and varied. It
>         seems clear that they led the way in introducing features
>         which became characteristic of the Catholic Church. They were
>         distinguished as hymn-writers (Bardesanes, Ophites,
>         Valentinians). The Basilideans seem to have been the first to
>         celebrate the festival of Epiphany. The Simonians and
>         Carpocratians first used images of Christ and others (see
>         Church Histories of Schaff, Kurtz, etc.).
>         (b) The ethic also took two directions—one towards an
>         unbridled antinomianism, the other towards a gloomy
>         asceticism. Antinonrian Gnostics (e.g. Nicolaitans, Ophites)
>         held that sensuality is to be overcome by indulging it to
>         exhaustion, and they practised the foulest debaucheries. The
>         Ascetics (e.g. Saturninns, Tatian) abhorred matter, and strove
>         to avoid all contact with flesh as far as possible. This led
>         them to forbid marriage and indulgence in certain kinds of
>         food. This ethic in both oranches is the unfailing outcome of
>         the primary dualism characteristic of Gnosticism. Wherever
>         dualistic notions are influential, we find this twin
>         development of antinomianism and asceticism. In the NT we find
>         both kinds of error referred to (see below). It is to be
>         remembered that neither by itself is sufficient to indicate
>         Gnosticism. There are many sources conceivable, for asceticism
>         especially.

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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