Why is the fall of material reality necessary, and why must it be phrased in terms of a feminine agent? The answer may rest in Platonic origins of the concept of Mother-as-receptacle, and in the Platonic presupposition of the fallen nature of matter as an expression of imperfect “becoming” as opposed to the divine nature of “Being”. With Silence’s role in the first divine act, and in Her relation to the Father as something from which He emerged, it bears a striking resemblance to the receptacle in Plato’s Timeaus.
In the Timeaus, the receptacle is mythically represented as “a sort of wet-nurse” for physical matter. Like the Gnostic conception of Silence, it is an unchanging precondition of existence, for “[i]t both always receives all things, and nowhere in no way has it ever taken on any shape similar to the ones that come into it”. Furthermore, just as in the Gnostic tradition, Plato’s receptacle is conjoined with a conception of motherhood, with both an offspring and a “husband”: “it’s fitting to liken the receiver to a mother, the ‘from which’ to a father, and the nature between these to an offspring”. Yet, where the offspring of the Demiurge and the receptacle is the imperfect production of the material world, the offspring of the Mother and Father is the completion of the divine Pleroma.
This is where we begin to see the differences between the Platonic receptacle and the Silence of the Gnostics. Plato’s feminine principle is the cause of unbalance, which imperfectly conforms itself to the ideas of the Demiurge; whereas, as has already been seen, the Gnostic Mother is the complement of the divine Father. Another distinction is apparent when one considers that while Plato’s receptacle is fundamentally expressed in its shapelessness in three dimensional space, the Mother is characterized by Her silence in the extra-mundane space of the Pleroma, outside of the three dimensional world of matter.
This same purity of the Mother would be unable to cause the disorder of the material world, for She is the precondition of the transcendent Father who himself is perfect. Yet in order to avoid admitting of imperfections in the highest level of the Pleroma, while simultaneously accounting for the presupposed “fallen” nature of the material world, a subsidiary receptacle was needed. This receptacle would still be transcendent, being of the Pleroma, but fallen enough to permit of the creation of matter. This very concession shows some of the influence of Plato’s thoughts, for in the Timeaus a third part is always necessary to permit movement from the divine realm to the chaotic world of matter. As he states: “it’s not possible for two things alone to be beautifully combined apart from some third: some bond must get in the middle and bring them both together”. For Plato, this third would be the recalcitrant receptacle:
which always is, admitting not of destruction and providing a seat for all that has birth, itself graspable by some bastard reasoning with the aid of insensibility, hardly to be trusted, the very thing we look to when we dream and affirm that it’s necessary somehow for everything that is to be in some region and occupy some space.
These negative connotations draw some of their impetus from the Greek debate between the status of Being and Becoming in the created world which was particularly evident in the Platonic and Pythagorean schools, and it is just this ambiguity which also characterizes the figure of Sophia.
For the Gnostics, then, the requirement of the fall would need to be fulfilled by a lesser feminine force, because of the near total integration of the divine Father and Mother. A closer approximation to Plato’s receptacle would then be the partly fallen aeon Sophia, who scholars have already connected to Platonic influences on Gnostic thought. It is Sophia who gives birth to the visible world in a similar manner to Plato’s receptacle, but with an entirely different subtext about what this means for the nature of matter itself. Indeed, Plato’s receptacle is very close to the Gnostic Sophia, although it is couched in less overtly religious language. She is “the mother and receptacle of that which has been born visible and in all ways sensed as neither earth nor air nor fire nor water, nor as any of these things that have been born composites of constituents of these”. In this view the unruly nature of the Platonic receptacle in conforming to the ideas of the Demiurge is taken up in the erroneous desire of Sophia to try and fathom the Father, and rests in a similar, albeit also strikingly different valuation of the feminine substrate of the physical world. While it is true, as James Goehring states in “A Classical Influence on the Gnostic Sophia Myth”, the fall of Sophia can be viewed as either a sexual or philosophical act: “In the former, Sophia’s act is presented as an attempt to penetrate the mystery around the Father. In the latter, it is understood as an effort to imitate the Father’s creative power by generating a being apart from her consort. This mythos nevertheless echoes the Platonic receptacle’s “longing”, but inability to completely reflect the creative potential present within the father/Demiurge.
These Gnostic views of the universal substrate were likewise deeply ingrained in the Hermetic and Alchemical thought of the ancient world. For example, the same Gnostic conception of silence as something performative is again echoed in the Hermetic “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”. This text connects the Hermetic tradition to Gnostic themes as well as to themes present in Middle Platonism. Most striking for our purposes is the text’s discussion of active silence, in which the prophet Hermes instructs his disciple: “Language is not able to reveal this [secret of the Pleroma]. For the entire eighth, O my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence”. He then goes on to discuss how the proper form of prayer to the Pleroma is silence, both in terms of actual silence as well as secrecy. We can see here a definite point of unity between the two traditions and an explanatory device which we can use to help account for the importance of secrecy in both. They emerge from the same evaluation of silence as something creative, active and ultimately befitting transcendent subjects which is derived from the experience of the divine which is reached through negative theology.
Furthermore, insofar as the visible world is seen as being worthy of escape or redemption and also as it is created from the accident of a divine principle, both traditions have predicates which make it possible to reenter the perfect receptacle or divine realm, making the redemptive process of nature itself possible. This is particularly evident in the “Discourse of Hermes Trismegistus: Poimandres”, in which the prophet Hermes is given the task of leading “mankind to beauty and reverence of knowledge”, by taking them through the spheres to the Ogdoad. This language of the Ogdoad is also particularly important in showing the relationship between the two traditions, for just as it is a divine realm in the Hermetic Poimandres, it is the divine realm in “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”, in which the realm of the Ogdoad is also referred to as being part of the Pleroma.
Ultimately then, as has been discussed, to the early Gnostics, as also for their Hermetic counterparts, silence itself was an active principle, which paradoxically derived its creative potential from the stillness of its being. This performative principle was a reflection of the Gnostic reinterpretation of the Platonic receptacle into something both divine and co-perfect with the creative Father, while at the same time remaining the originative cause of the chaotic nature of the material world in the guise of Sophia. It would be difficult to separate the Gnostic account of Sophia and the Mother away from its partly Platonic inspiration, for in doing so we lose one of the richest interpretive frameworks with which to understand the divine drama of creation for both the Hermetic and Gnostic. Rather, it is more useful to see how these concepts are understandable in terms of a theological interpretation of the Platonic receptacle which finds itself purified in the Gnostic framework of the divine Mother which is Silence while also being preserved in the fallen, though ever repentant, Sophia.
For More Information:
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Gnosticism: A Source Book of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. Ed. Robert M. Grant. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1988.
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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>
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.