Dylan M. Burns is the author of Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism, as well as Research Associate at Leipzig University. Beyond understanding the origins and theology of the enigmatic Sethians, our interview covered these topics:

  • Is Gnosticism a suitable term?
  • The ancient war between Gnostics and Neoplatonists
  • The magical life of the ancient Gnostics, including how they hoped to attain divinity
  • The disturbing but mystical content of certain Nag Hammadi texts

The audio version of the interview is available at the end of the interview, as well as a link to the second part.


MC: Why don’t we start with what we spoke about a bit at the Gnostic Counter Culture Conference and what has definitely been floating around in academia for a few years since Karen King and Rethinking Gnosticism came out and that is the term itself “Gnosticism” What is your stance on the term “Gnosticism” Dylan?

DB: I think that “Gnosticism” is a modern term that we scholars can make up and use as we like, much as we make up other words we use to describe the phenomena of the ancient or pre-modern world like “Philosophy” or “Religion” for which there are no exact equivalences in the ancient or pre-modern world but things that may be similar or useful to categorise using this term or another today. In other words, Gnosticism is not something that existed per se in the ancient world. People didn’t walk around talking about Gnosticism 2000 years ago.

There’s no word “Gnosticism” in Greek or Latin but there are discrete phenomena that may be useful for us to call Gnosticism and these phenomena are related to individuals who were called “Gnostics” or were said to call themselves “Gnostics” according to two sources we have from the ancient world – one of them being Irenaeus of Lyons a second century Christian heresiographer and polemicist and the other one being Porphyry of Tyre a third century Platonic philosopher and the set of myths and ideas which seem to be associated with what we know about these individuals who were said to call themselves “Gnostics” may be usefully designated “Gnosticism” much as we might say that ancient philosophers talked about something called “philosophy” were people who did particular kinds of rituals in the ancient world were practising something that we might want to call “religion” or bears a similarity to what we might call religion today.

MC: And what about the term “Gnostic” itself Dylan? It seems we have David Brakke and Bentley Layton saying it should be given only to the Sethians, who really aren’t even Sethians, but you seem to take a bit more of an expanded view don’t you?

DB: Yes and no. There’s a large extent to which Bentley Layton who was, of course, my teacher and mentor when I was a graduate student and Brakke, who also was a student of Leyton although much more rooted in the past than myself, they had a big influence on me and there’s a large extent to which I agree with them.

Leyton’s contribution was saying that we know our ancient sources don’t talk about Gnosticism exactly but they talk about these people called “Gnostics” and the myths associated with these Gnostics bear a very strong resemblance to the myths we have from Nag Hammadi, in the Nag Hammadi codices discovered in upper Egypt around 1945 which scholars, for various reasons, would like to designate “Sethian” namely because they focus a lot on the figure of “Seth” as revealer and saviour. Brakke provides this argument which Leyton originally put together in the 80’s and 90’s but tucking them away in a small article here or in a paragraph of his wonderful book The Gnostic Scriptures.

Brakke took this and gave it a book-length treatment in 2010 in his wonderful book The Gnostics. What Brakke decided though was that he didn’t want to use the term “Gnosticism”. Michael Alan Williams and Karen King really criticised this term as you mentioned earlier in the late 90’s and early 2000’s because it gave rise to a lot of misleading clichés from older ideas about Gnosticism, especially influenced by ecclesiologists that really made it a kind of pejorative, negative categorisation – a name that you would call something you don’t like and perhaps was not even coherent in itself.

Brakke said it’s better for us to talk about Gnostics and not necessarily Gnosticism. I go a little bit further than him as you observed in so far as I think that the complex of ideas we associate with the Gnostics can be usefully designated as Gnosticism even if we acknowledge that this is a term that we are making up today. So I think it’s useful to talk about Gnosticism and maybe we’ve rethought it and digested some of the criticisms of the term from King or from Williams but I don’t think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater exactly.

MC: And going to your book, it seems your book is about “Once Upon A Time” there was a brilliant man named Plotinus and he would set the foundation for religion, even to this day. But this man Plotinus was very angry at a group of people – why was this man angry Dylan?

DB: Plotinus is a 3rd century Platonic philosopher and his student Porphyry tells us that there were Christian heretics in Rome in Plotinus’ time whose books circulated in Plotinus’ seminar and for various reasons we can approximate the year that these books were circulating and debate broke out around them as being the year 263 CE. Plotinus grew upset about these books which, he said, set out from the authority of traditional Greek philosophy, that is Plato, and challenged the authority of Plato and claimed to have superior authorities to Plato in their own mind, in their own canon and he wrote a tractate refuting the ideas of the individuals who circulated these books and Porphyry, the student editor of Plotinus’ treatises, gave the name to this tractate of “Against The Gnostics” and therefore we can say that these Christian heretics whose books were circulating in Plotinus’ circle called themselves “Gnostics” after a fashion. It’s a very important piece of evidence.

Porphyry also tells us that these books were “Apocalypses” using the Greek word “Apokalypsis” – “Revelations” and a lot of things that are associated with ancient apocalyptic literature emphasise cosmic eschatology, the incumbent end of the world, the idea of an elect group of individuals, maybe even an elect race of individuals being saved while the rest of humanity is set aside and would be led to destruction and especially use of the apocalyptic genre where a particular supernatural or super-human intermediary descends from heaven or takes a human being up in to heaven to deliver them information about God and the cosmos or anything that might be deemed particularly important.

All of this is typical of the genre “Apocalypse” and Porphyry in fact said that it was Apocalypses that were circulating in the time of Plotinus’ seminar. So, Plotinus has a lot to complain about when it comes to the Gnostics. His treatise that Porphyry called “Against The Gnostics” the ninth of the second group of his Enneads or “Group Of Nine” should be read today by students who want to understand this conflict, it survives, and there’s a very large extent to which it’s focused on The Apocalypse itself. The idea of a revelation born of “The End Of All Things” (unheard) eschatology.

MC: It’s very interesting Dylan because in your book you really do show how the Gnostics were different from the Neo-Platonists and really any Platonists of those days, because, maybe it began with Harnack who called the Gnostics “Christianity with Platonism gone awry” or something like that and even in modern circles people assume that the Gnostics were sort of like the Valentinians, sort of these very platonic kind of dudes.

But the reality is they were very radical and very different than the Neo-Platonists. I mean one example you give of the many is the idea that in Greek Metaphysics you sort of found an allegory in these ancient myths and then you found your Gnosis or your Revelation but the idea of simply rewriting these ancient texts was pretty much a sin to the Neo-Platonists and that’s what the Gnostics were doing.

DB: Absolutely. There are good reasons to associate Gnosticism with Platonism. Harnack called Gnosticism the “acute Hellenisation of Christianity”. This idea that Christianity was originally very Jewish and that the Gnostics came along and made it all very Greek, by which he meant Platonic and then Anach called it a “Platonism gone wild” which I think is wonderful! A “Platonism run wild” that’s an hilarious expression!

The reason that these comparisons were made is that Gnosticism focuses on the “otherworldly” – on the world of ideas, on thinking of heaven as being composed of particular ideas. They have names of virtues and levels of epistemological reality in comprehension. You imagine saying that heaven is broken down in to different stages and areas and one of them is called “understanding” and another one is called “consciousness” and a third is called “love” and this is the sort of map of heaven that you find in Gnostic literature. There’s not a North and a South and a Land of Nod and what have you were even apparent at this stage but sections of the mind, of the soul that are externalised in these myths. So that’s why it’s worth thinking of Gnosticism as a kind of Platonism. This sort of dualism which has to do with the reality of ideas and the incumbency of wrestling with the reality of ideas ourselves being a big part of one’s own path to enlightenment.

But then there are a lot of reasons that Gnosticism is not really a kind of Platonism and the book handles this by focusing on Plotinus’ polemic “Against The Gnostics” and then what we find in the extant apocalypses from Nag Hammadi which bear the same names as the Apocalypses that Porphyry says circulated in the seminar. So by comparing what Plotinus says about the Gnostics to the texts that bear the names of those mentioned by Porphyry which we can presume, in some form, to have been known by Plotinus we can approximate what this debate was really about.

It comes to down to issues that were very important for the formation of Pagan versus Christian and I would say even more Judaeo-Christian Abrahamic identity in late antiquity and this is where the idea of the exile of Sethian Gnosticism and then also the exile of Platonism from the canon of Christian philosophy in late antiquity comes from in the book. These questions had things to do with things like soteriology – who gets saved and who doesn’t get saved? – how does one get access to salvation? – or eschatology – what about the end of the world? – what do we do with the end of all things? – is there such a thing as the end of all things?

And then finally authority is very important. Plotinus in “Against The Gnostics” does not like the idea that some people, as he says about the Gnostics in his own seminar say that they can be saved in this life already and others cannot be saved.  For him, to the extent to which anybody becomes saved, one explores the realm of the ideas by being a good philosopher, one contemplates the good and practices the goodness in their life and this sort of life is available to anybody who has the proper training in Philosophy to be able to practice contemplation and practice with ethics as opposed to having received a particular kind of Revelation that says “OK, you’re one of the chosen few” and we find a lot of this language about being the chosen as opposed to the not chosen in the Gnostic Apocalypses from Nag Hammadi which seem to have circulated in some form in Plotinus’ seminar.

Eschatology – the idea of the end of the world. Plotinus is very upset about the idea that God could create a world and then destroy it one day. For him this is very silly and if there’s any dogma in Greek philosophy in general with respect to the relationship between God and the world between all of the different philosophical schools, it’s that the world is eternal. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that the world went on forever. They disagreed about whether or not it was created and if it was created in time or from outside of time. They expended a lot of effort on the story of distinction but they agreed that it was going to always be around. So this idea that you have coming out of Jewish and then Christian tradition that one day it’s all going to wrap up, that the heavens will wrap up like a squall or fire will rain down, this was considered to be very silly by the Greek philosophers and you have this idea of the end of the world in the Gnostic Apocalypses. They talk about the end of all things, repent for the end is nigh and so forth.

Finally, Plotinus doesn’t like the idea of what I call in the book “Revelatory Epistemology” There are two issues with this: one is the idea of different revelatory authorities that you have in the Greek philosophical canon. Ancient philosophical schools, I argue in the book, were pretty conservative places. In order to study the sort of advanced ancient philosophy you had to go through a lot of middle school and high school, the equivalent of an ancient undergraduate education which involved a lot of rhetoric and memorisation and learning and internalisation of Greek poetry and Greek history. “The Classics” as it were.

So, in becoming a philosopher, you had to spend a lot of time in the ancient equivalent of high school and college civics and if you look at rhetorical literature from this period – the 2nd and 3rd century CE – there’s a lot of Philhellenism – scholars call this period “The Second Sophistic” because it’s the second flowering of great rhetoric at the time and what these Rhetoric liked to talk about was how good it is to be Greek and the superiority of Greek culture to other cultures, for example Roman culture in (unheard) context as well as some of the cultures of the East and Plotinus’ language, what he referred to as the “traditions of our fathers” that the Gnostics reject or the cultic traditions that the Gnostics had no more interest in reflects this very Philhellenic, conservative environment.

So when the Gnostics come along and wave at a revelation that they say comes from Zoroaster, this Persian sage, a character named Allogenes, whose name in Greek means “the other born” and say “well these individuals were older than Plato and they go back further than Plato.” This really challenges the edifice upon which ancient education in this period was built which is that you learn everything from these particular Greek thinkers, even if some of them, like Plato, sometime, say that they got their wisdom from the East.

So there’s the other aspect of Revelatory Epistemology that Plotinus doesn’t like which is something you have all over Apocalyptic literature, it’s a defining feature of Revelatory or Apocalyptic literature which is that some kind of information, the topics of Apocalyptic literature are completely diverse. Some of them have to do with heavenly storerooms and how much snow God likes to keep in them. Others have to do with the end of the world and what is going to happen and this happens to coincide with the apocalypses of the Catholic and Protestant bibles today – the book of Daniel, the book of Revelations use the term “apocalyptic” to talk about these end-time ideas. Though, strictly speaking, the word just means “revelatory.” We have all kinds of ideas in the apocalypses but what unites them is the idea that this revelation, this “apokalypsis” is completely true and is delivered to a particular seer or receiver of this knowledge – the “revelator” as it were – who promulgates it by writing the book, the apocalyptic book that spreads this idea around, whatever they think it might be.

In Platonic Epistemology, of course, it’s not like you have this wormhole from the top to the bottom, where the completely true idea gets transported thanks to the intervention of the supernatural mediator. Instead, what you have is a sort of trickle-down epistemology where the things that are completely true at the top, in the world of forms, are reflected in various permutations through levels of reality which become increasingly more material until you get down to the world which we inhabit today where all kinds of forms and ideas inhabit material objects and so the way that you climb back to the forms to the most true level of things is by crawling up one step at a time through these various permutations of reality, thinking more and more clearly, more and more disconnected from the world of change around you in to the world of ideas where things are universal, complete and increasingly simple.

So there are a lot of steps on that road and it’s very hierarchical whereas this hierarchy is completely compressed and broken down in to a single revelatory event in apocalyptic thinking and Plotinus doesn’t like that idea either. It’s upsetting him.

So to sum up what Plotinus is so mad about – he doesn’t like the idea of the end of the world, that there’s going to be an end of all things. He doesn’t like the idea that some people are saved and other people are not going to be saved. He doesn’t like the idea of different sorts of authorities than the school authorities, especially Plato. And he doesn’t like the idea that you can get all of it at once in a single revelatory event. It’s got to take a lifetime of studying and thinking, getting your way back up through those permutations of reality in to The One. That’s what he doesn’t like!

And what’s so interesting about reading these Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi which circulated in his school is that we can really see the things that he’s complaining about – his treatise “Against The Gnostics” reflected in these treatises. It’s fascinating stuff.

MC: You mentioned he believed in a sort of trickle-down divinity, so basically Plotinus was a metaphysical Reagan and the Gnostics were metaphysical anarchists.

DB: I think it’s not an entirely unjust comparison. Like I said, the environment in which Plotinus was writing was very conservative. These were not people who were interested in overthrowing things. Porphyry writes about the Gnostics in his life of Plotinus and he also talks a little bit about Plotinus’ school itself. For a time Plotinus held his seminars in the Royal Palace itself. If you go to the ruins of the palace in Rome and walk around, you’re walking around where Plotinus was holding his little philosophical reading groups. This is like in the middle of the White House or the Pentagon. Very wealthy people were members of this. He had a Matroness who was a Patrona for him, who supported him. Everybody involved with these extremely high levels of ancient education came from wealthy families that had a lot of vested interest in the present order. Much like people come out of the Ivy League today most often with the vested interest of maintaining the order that the Ivy League supports.

The Gnostics, on the other hand, often used the language of authority and rulership. What is an Archon? An Archon is literally a ruler, a magistrate, somebody who works for the government. They then used these terms to describe bad things, bad people, bad entities that run the present world. This is a very fundamental cultural difference between a philosopher like Plotinus and other ancient philosophers that are really members of an establishment educational system and then the Gnostics who must have obviously been products of the system themselves, in so far as they were educated enough to participate in this reading group, but were also very suspicious of the system and challenged it in so far as they used language that co-opted terms of the system like the term “Archon” for instance and gave them a very pejorative meaning and it also invoked authorities that would have had no place within the system like Zorostrianos or Allogenes.

MC: Doesn’t Plotinus also disagree with them on social issues? It seems the Sethians felt like the empire wasn’t taking care of the poor and other stuff.

DB: This is tough to say. There’s some passages in “Against The Gnostics” where he talks about how the Gnostic opponents, the people he’s writing against – he actually never called them “Gnostics,” it’s Porphyry who gives the treatise the title “Against The Gnostics” but Plotinus never calls the opponents by a particular name. He just simply says they used to be friends of his. There’s a passage where he complains about his former friends complaining about the state of things in this present world. If they don’t like it they can just get out, just the same way that people who don’t like the way that things are run in the city can just leave the city.

And one is reminded of this complaint that the 2nd-century Christian thinker Tertullian says. Writing about martyrdom he reports that a Roman magistrate is very tired of Christians martyring themselves to prove their religion. He says “if they want to kill themselves, they have ropes! They don’t need Rome’s government to come and do this” and I think Plotinus is thinking the same way here – if they want to leave the city they can get out of the city, if they don’t like this world they can get out of the world

MC: Move to Canada or France or something!

DB: Move to Canada, move to Canada, move to the Ennead! Now, some scholars think that what Plotinus’ remark here means is that Sethians are complaining about governance actually and the treatment of individuals, perhaps the poor, the less advantaged in society under Roman governance and that Plotinus would be then ostensibly defending the order of things in the city. This is an extrapolation. It’s a theory. It’s not obvious from the text, it’s one of several possible readings of the text. However, what we do know, is that the individuals that Plotinus is writing against, these former friends of his, Porphyry calls them “Christians” and he says that they are in Rome and we know that this is something that Roman Christians would have been concerned about of course. From the beginning of the Roman church, care for the poor and the less advantaged in society was of paramount concern.

So it’s not just a silly idea or an enormous extrapolation to think that this sort of social policy was part of what Plotinus and the Gnostics that he knew were arguing about.

MC: You can almost hear Plotinus just doing a lot of face-palms behind his laptop as he’s writing this or as he’s saying these things. Another thing, Dylan, that he does say, which is very interesting, is that the Gnostics had really no concern with altering reality and they weren’t doing theurgy but they believed, as your book says that they could go and change the actual spirit world, manipulate the spirit world and wasn’t that just really bad for Plotinus as well?

DB: This is a very interesting point. Were the Gnostics doing magic? He says they with the chants make hissing sounds, here we have a lot of wonderful, very rare, if not singular, Greek words for different sorts of sounds – hoots and growls! – that he says the Gnostics are making while they were doing exorcisms or what appear to be healing spells. So, in other words he says that the Gnostics are practising magic and saying funny words while they do it – “abracadabra” “hocus pocus” and the like.

If we look at the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, including the texts with titles that coincide with those that Porphyry says were circulating at the time of Plotinus’ seminar, we see a lot of these strange words, these nonsensical words, what scholars sometimes like to call the Abonmina Barbara: the barbarian names or barbarian words in these texts and these very long treatises which are actually full of philosophical terminology so obviously would have been interesting reading material for Plotinus and Porphyry.

They’d break in to these long hymns where they would recite these strange, nonsensical words in praising various deities and some of these formulae we also find in magical papyri from the period. Not so well known in the scholarly literature but sometimes commented upon is the fact that Zorostrianos, one of these texts which circulated Plotinus’ school, but we also have a copy of from Nag Hammadi is extant not only at Nag Hammadi but there’s a papyrus fragment of it that has been published which appears to have been used as an amulet, probably a protective spell. We think it must have been used as an amulet because of the way it was folded. In the ancient world if you wanted to ward off a fever from someone, let’s say your mother gets sick and you want her to get better, you would go and find the “witch doctor”, for want of a better word, in your local village, purchase an anti-fever spell from them, they would write it down and fold it up and then put it around something and then you could go and you could take it home, put it on your mother and ideally the incantation will ward away the fever inducing demons in your mother’s vicinity.

So, this fragment of Zorostrianos is folded in much the same way that we think was typical of ancient amulets and, sure enough, there’s a section of the Zorostrianos that’s full of these barbarian names, a listing of names for the higher deities and other deities in heaven’s exalted status like Zolgenithos or Edulat and so forth.

What this shows us is that some of these Gnostic traditions or at least the incantations, the names that they liked to use for their deities, were also known in the world of ancient magic, that here’s a big overlap between these worlds and it’s very possible that our Nag Hammadi documents coming out of Egypt, of course, bear a lot of signs of influence from the world of Egyptian magic which of course we know from other finds of papyri and so forth. So, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if these Gnostics from Plotinus’ circle were practising magic of some variety, particularly with respect to healing spells. In fact, we know that the Treatise Zorostrianos must have been used in such a way itself.

Now why would Plotinus have had such a big problem with that? Because, if there’s anything we know about the ancient world it’s that lots of people were doing magic and this is where the question of theurgy comes in where the Gnostics doing Theurgy then what kind of rituals were ok.

There are a lot of different directions one could go with this but the basic issue would be that the Gnostic Apocalypses that circulated in Plotinus’ seminar, Zorostrianos, Allogenes and Marsanes, and related treatises, the three treatise of Seth describe human beings as ultimately being on a par with, at least, the angels, the angels themselves, if not being able to achieve a supra-angelic level of knowledge and authority and this is most clear in the Treatise Zorostrianos— where Zorostrianos himself says on more than one occasion “I became an angel.” At the end of his revelation, he reports that as he’s descending down to earth, he delivers a sort of a lecture, a seminar, to the angels up in heaven who listen to him rapt with interest for his knowledge, thirsty for his knowledge and this is really out of the ordinary and ultimately unacceptable for a Platonic philosopher of the period.

So this brings us to the question of theurgy which is a central one in later Neo-Platonism and it comes down to the question of what role ritual ought to play in the philosophical life and the terms of this debate are largely drawn by Plotinus’ student Porphyry and his near contemporary Iamblichus. Porphyry thought that rituals like the one I just described, for example, taking an amulet with the names of Gnostic deities from Zorostrianos and putting it around your mother’s neck to drive away fever-inducing demons presumes the idea that whoever wrote the amulet, the human being that wrote the amulet could hold power over these demons. And he thought that was very silly because human beings could not have power over demons or angels or anything else superhuman by virtue of being material beings into which souls have descended. Human beings are less powerful than demons or angels or heroes, less material beings or immaterial beings whose souls had not descended into the world as far.

In fact, Porphyry believed that the soul had not really descended into beings at all and that it’s just a permutation of soul that’s in us presently and therefore, the only means by which one can get in touch with the soul, which still dwells in heaven – Porphyry agrees with Plotinus – is to think one’s way there. Material objects like amulets or speech actually, the product of material speech organs could have no power over spiritual things having to do with the soul and that includes demons or angels and what have you. Iamblichus completely disagreed. He believed that human souls actually do dwell within the bodies, they’re not just reflections or connected to a soul in heaven and, therefore, in order to free our souls from our bodies we have to fight fire with fire as it were and that is interact with the body using, bodily things, material things and that particular kinds of rituals that use the right sorts of symbols in material objects could actually have power over other material objects, including the material things of our body.

But he disagreed that human beings actually had powers over angels and demons. He said that Porphyry was right that human beings do not have power over angels and demons themselves. Rather, when human beings interact with these superhuman beings who seem to exert control over them as in a human spell, for example, it is not the case that the human being has one’s own power that is exerted over the fever-inducing demon, rather it is divine power flowing through the human being although it does not belong to the human being that is superior to and able to have an effect upon this demon. It’s an important distinction – for Zorostrianos and Allogenes and the like – human beings are next to god the most powerful beings in the universe and this is an important aspect of Gnostic thinking, that human beings are ultimately kin with God. They share a divine essence with God on some level and you see this reflected in Gnostic texts where human beings actually have power or can learn to have power over various supernatural beings and they are said to be superior to the creator of the world and the creators of the human body itself.

For Iamblichus, this would have been a horrible idea. He would have agreed with the Gnostics that certain kinds of spells could be efficacious but he would have said that something very different is going on, that makes it efficacious. The power of the spell does not come from the human essence shared with God because it comes from a divine essence that has been called down – again this sort of trickle-down divinity that is trickling down to the human beings but does not belong to the human beings and so Iamblichus’ idea about what constitutes theurgy or divine action is actually very much part and parcel of this conservative neo-platonic thinking about the structure of the cosmos and the human place in it as being relatively low next to this huge hierarchy of gods and that ultimately leads back to the source.


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