Silence: Gnostic Resonnance on a Platonic Dissonance, Part 1

The concepts of Silence, Mother, Sophia and voice display a startling amount of fluidity in the Gnostic tradition, each seeming to lead into the other. Yet with a close examination of the Nag Hammadi Library, certain themes do begin to emerge. In a large number of the texts there is the view that silence, as a property of the divine, is more than a mere device of negative theology, but that silence itself is something performative and active. This is what accounts for the apparently paradoxical nature of voice to silence in the Gnostic texts, for silence is performative insofar as it is a precondition of voice, and hence of understanding. Not only this, but silence is the very agent, or signal of the divine presence which results from the arguments of negative theology. Furthermore, these concepts can be understood in relation to the Platonic influence on Gnostic thought, for Silence (the Mother) in some ways resembles a more perfect version of Plato’s receptacle, whose dark reflection is the chaos of matter under the influence of the Demiurge. In the Gnostic account, Silence, as the perfect receptacle, must then be mediated to the ultimately imperfect receptacle of matter through the error of a lesser receptacle, namely through the world-creating mistake of Sophia.

It is important to note, before any in-depth analysis can be made, that the texts under discussion represent a large cross section of different thoughts and traditions. The matter is further complicated by the murky definitions that exist in the academic community about the very classification of Gnosticism and the Gnostic. However, having said this, there are numerous points of contact in almost all the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library, despite their various subject matters and styles. This is particularly evident in the almost universal presence of the Mother and Sophia.

The concept of silence is intimately connected with the Mother who is also identified in the Gnostic corpus as “Silence”. Yet silence itself also has a semi-independent role to play in the nature of the divine order. In the “Gospel of the Egyptians” the three powers (the Father, the Mother and the Son) request and receive “[a] silence of living silence”, the same three powers also emerged from “a living silence” and Adamas, the incorruptible man, asks for a son “so that, through (the race), the silence and the voice may appear”. Furthermore, keeping with the strange relation between silence and voice, in “Thunder, Perfect Mind” there is a paradoxical affirmation from the unknown female narrator, who claims: “I am the silence that is incomprehensible / and the idea whose remembrance is frequent. / I am the voice whose sound is manifold / and the word whose appearance is multiple” and “I shall be silent among those who are silent, / and I shall appear and speak”. In both of these texts, as well as in the “Acts of Thomas” which will be discussed later, silence and voice are not simply opposites, but are conjoined entities, each leading one into the another. This is further evident in the “Gospel of the Egyptians”, in which the order of the cosmos is described: “Then, [providence came forth from silence], and the [living silence of] the Spirit, [and] the Word [of] the father. {The angels sing with} never-silent [voice] [to… and all the] pleromas […] which is [the great] Christ, who is from [silence]”. While it may be simply a literary technique, there is an undeniable unity in these passages which recount the movement of something resting in or originating from silence, which then emerges as a voice but which nevertheless still resides in silence.

While the role of silence here is something akin to what we will later see with the Mother, insofar as silence is a precondition and receptacle for a creative force, the Gnostics also appeared to have a more direct experience with it. Silence in this way was understood as the precondition of their ability to understand the divine. The crux of this argument rests in the Gnostic divinity’s utter incomprehensibility.

Parts of the Nag Hammadi Library

Negative theology is common in Judaism, Christianity and a number of other belief systems and is also present in Plato’s Timaeus, in which he prefaces his discussion of the creation of the cosmos by stating that when “saying many things on many topics concerning gods and the birth of the all, we become incapable of rendering speeches that are always […] in agreement with themselves”. As Roelof van den Broek describes it in his work Studies in Gnosticism and Alexandrian Christianity, negative theology: “is the idea that God is so transcendent that he can only be described [as] ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible, unbegotten, without beginning and without end, incorruptible, immeasurable, invariable, unnamable, etc”. Despite this immense gap of understanding, we can still have some indirect idea of the divine through these negative accounts.

Simone Pétrement elucidates this in her work A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, in which she succinctly and elegantly oversteps the difficulty by stating that through negative theology: “it is silence that teaches about God”. Given the utter transcendence of the Gnostic God, this complete silence is what allowed the practitioner to nevertheless experience the insights of the revelation through a kind of “living silence”. In this way the unknown feminine in the “Thunder, Perfect Mind” can express the divine nature through a simultaneous action of silence and voice. It is also this kind of silence that the Mother (Silence) is representing when She is called upon in “The Acts of Thomas”: “Come Silence, Thou Revealer of the mighty things of all the Greatness; come Thou who dost make manifest the hidden, and make the secret plain! Come Holy Dove, mother of the two young twins; come Hidden Mother, revealed in deeds alone!” Silence demonstrates the divine through its sheer absence, as befitting a transcendental entity, and thus performs a religious function which is the apparent opposite of what one would expect. In doing so it is the precondition of religious gnosis and the foundation of the sacred knowledge. Thus it can be said that in this way silence spoke to the ancient Gnostics. It was a performative manifestation of the divine which exemplified its utter transcendence while at the same time making that self-same transcendence something tangible to its practitioners insofar as it was a creative, “living silence”.

As has already been seen, the relationship between the Gnostic concept of the Mother and that of silence is of primary importance, for “She (the Mother) alone exists as Silence”. Just as silence is the precondition of voice and the foundation which makes a divine encounter possible, the Mother is in some ways the precondition of the Father and the basis of His action in the ordering of the Pleroma, for: “He was one; having her in Himself, He was alone. Yet was He not ‘first,’ though ‘pre-existing,’ for it was only when He was manifest to Himself from Himself that there was a ‘second‘. Nor was He called Father before [Thought {Silence}] called Him Father”. It is sometimes difficult here to make the necessary connections, both because of the fragmentary nature of the text itself and because of the fact that depending upon Her manifestations the Mother is also called Thought, Silence and Grace, yet in many ways Her role remains the same insofar as she is the co-existent companion of the divine Father.

The Mother, as Silence, is the resting place of the Father, “[who came] fourth from the silence”. This is stressed a number of times in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” in which the Father comes “forth from the silence, while he rests in the silence”. Thus, like the quality of silence itself, the Mother is active in her stillness. This is particularly evident in the case of the divine coupling between the Father and the Mother, which results in the Mind, Voice, Word or Son in the Valentinian tradition, in which the Father is “in quiet and in deep solitude for infinite aeons. With him is [Silence]. […] Depth thought of emitting from himself a Beginning of all, like a seed, and he deposited this projected emission, as in a womb, in that Silence who is with him. Silence received this seed and became pregnant and bore Mind”. From Mind comes the other Aeons, which ultimately results in the final Pleromic principle, Sophia.

This view of the Mother/Silence as the dwelling place and generative base of the Father is one of the few stable themes that runs throughout the Nag Hammadi Library. This is also the view from the “Trimorphic Protennoia”, in which the Father’s resting place in Silence, Silence’s generative potential as womb and the relationship of silence to sound are all discussed. Again we have this same cyclic movement from silence to voice, in which the Son/Word describes himself as:  “a Voice [speaking softly]. I exist [from the first. I dwell] within the Silence […] And [it is] the [hidden Voice] that dwells [within the] immeasurable Silence”. The Son describes himself as the Word who dwells “[in] ineffable [Silence]. […] a Thought [revealed itself] perceptibly through [the great] Sound of the Mother, although it is a male offspring [that supports me] as my foundation. And it (the Sound) exists from the beginning in the foundations of the All”, furthermore, in this texts Silence herself speaks, stating that: “it is I [Thought/Silence] who am laden with the Voice […] uttering a voice by means of Thought. [I] am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within [me]”. This conception of Silence as the perfect receptacle of divine activity is thus mirrored in Her role as the generative substructure of the Pleroma. This is Her voice.

This matter is further discussed by Elaine Pagels in her work The Gnostic Gospels, in which she tries to classify the nature of the Mother. In this work Pagels examines Valentinus’ account, which begins with negative theology, but is qualified with the knowledge that the divine is:

a dyad; consisting, in one part, of the […] Primal Father; and, in the other, of Grace, Silence, the Womb and ‘Mother of All’. Valentinus reasons that Silence is the appropriate complement of the Father, designating the former as feminine and the latter as masculine because of the grammatical gender of the Greek words. He goes on to describe how Silence receives, as in a womb, the seed of the Ineffable Source; from this she brings fourth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious pairs of masculine and feminine energies.

As will become more prevalent in the discussion of Sophia and the Platonic receptacle, the Mother’s activity “gives birth” insofar as it is a reflection of the Father’s thought, just as Sophia’s fall is in some ways a product of her attempt to likewise be a reflection of the Father. This is the same idea expressed in the Apocrypha of John, in which “the Unknown Father saw himself mirrored in the light-water which surrounded him, he recognized himself, and immediately his thought became an independent female entity, Ennoia (‘Thought’)”. In both cases it is the stillness and productivity of the Mother/Thought/Silence which allows her to be the precondition of activity.

At the same time, there is the very real sense that the Father and Mother are inseparable components of one being, for the Father: “was [not] called Father before [Thought {Silence}] called Him Father”. Thus many strands of the Gnostic tradition recognize the dyadic property of the Father/Mother as a more complete unity resulting in an androgynous divinity. It will be this same unity and completeness with the Father that makes the Mother an unsuitable candidate for the fall of matter and requires a secondary receptacle in the form of the fallen Sophia.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timaeus_%28dialogue%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nag_Hammadi_library

Distilling Nature’s Secrets I: The Ancient Alchemists, Ed. Kyle Fraser. Halifax: University of King’s College, 2007.

Gnosticism: A Source Book of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. Ed. Robert M. Grant. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1988.

Goehring, James E. “A Classical Influence on the Gnostic Sophia Myth” in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 35, No. 1. (Mar., 1981), pp. 16-23. Accessed at: <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0042-6032%28198103%2935%3A1%3C16%3AACIOTG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B&gt;

Mead, G.R.S.. Fragments of A Faith Forgotten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origins of Christianity. New York: University Books, 1960.

The Nag Hammadi Library: In English. Trans. Members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Pétrement, Simone. A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism. Trans. Carol

Harrison. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991.

Pearson, Birger A. “Gnosticism as Platonism: With Special Reference to Marsanes” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 77, No. 1. (Jan., 1984), pp. 55-72. Accessed at: <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0017-8160%28198401%2977%3A1%3C55%3AGAPWSR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-2&gt;

Plato. Timeaus. Trans. Peter Kalkavage. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2001.

van den Broek, Roelof. Studies in Gnosticism and Alexandrian Christianity. New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.

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