Episode 82: I Got Soul, And I’m Super Bad: Basilides of Alexandria
During the first centuries of our era the Gnostics disputed with the Christians. They were annihilated, but we are free to imagine the possibility of their victory. If Alexandria had triumphed instead of Rome, the bizarre and turbid testaments synopsized here would be coherent, majestic and in daily use. Phrases such as Novalis’ “Life is a sickness of the soul,” or Rimbaud’s desperate sentence “True life is elsewhere, we are not in the world”, would fulminate now from out of the canonical books. Speculations like the rejected notion of Richter on the sidereal origin of life and its chance dissemination across the planet would be accorded unconditional acquiescence in the laboratories of piety. In any case, what greater grace could we hope for than to be insignificant, what greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?
– Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Anthony Kerrigan ‘A Vindication of the Counterfeit Basilides’, Transatlantic Review 27, Winter 1967-68, p.17.
Basilides of Alexandria is an intriguing figure of the early second century: hardly anything survives of his work, so great was the condemnation of his thought by the rising tide of Orthodoxy, he figuring prominently in the ‘unholy trinity’ of second-century teachers, along with Valentinus and Marcion, accused of bringing ‘heresy’ into the otherwise unified, universal church. But Basilides was a very important thinker, a pioneer of Christian philosophy, a scriptural exegete, and an esoteric teacher to a group known (by their enemies at least) as ‘the Basilideans’. He also pioneered apophatic language and taught a cosmology incalculably vast in its scope: he was, in short, a serious head.
In this episode we examine the sources and try to sift them for what we can say about the real Basilides and his teachings. Along the way we discover that esotericism can make you invisible, and that some of the works of Carl Jung were in fact written by Basilides.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Clement of Alexandria: Strom. 7.17. We cite the English translation from William Wilson, trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV: Clement of Alexandria. Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1870.
- Eusebius: HE IV.7.1-8. We cite the English translation from The Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea. Kirsopp Lake, J.E.L. Oulton, and H.J. Lawlor, trans. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1926-1932.
- Irenæus: Long passage about the role of the Hebrew God and Jesus: Hær. I.24.4. The Basilideans use the theorems of the mathematikoi, i.e. astrologers: I.24.7. ‘No longer Jews, not yet Christians’: I.24.6.
- [Pseudo] Hippolytus on Basilides’ beyond-ineffable god: Haer. VII.20 (PG 16/3 3302). Here’s the Greek for all you apophatic mavens out there: ἦν, φησὶν, ὅτε ἦν οὐδέν, ἀλλ ́ οὐδὲ τὸ οὐδὲν ἦν τι τῶν ὄντων, ἀλλὰ ψιλῶς καὶ ἀνυπονοήτως δίχα παντὸς σοφίσματος ἦν ὅλως οὐδὲ ἕν. ̔́Οταν δὲ λέγω, φησὶν, τὸ ἦν, οὐχ ὅτι ἦν λέγω, ἀλλ ́ ἵνα σημάνω τοῦτα ὅπερ βούλομαι δεῖξαι, λέγω, φησὶν, ὅτι ἦν ὅλως οὐδέν. ̓́Εστι γάρ, φησὶν, ἐκεῖνο οὐχ ἁπλῶς ἄρρητον, ὃ ὀνομάζεται· ἄρρητον γοῦν αὐτὸ καλοῦμεν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ οὐδὲ ἄρρητον· καὶ γὰρ τὸ οὐδ ́ ἄρρητον οὐκ ἄρρητον ὀνομάζεται, ἀλλὰ ἐστί, φησὶν, ὑπεράνω παντὸς ὀνόματος ὀνομαζομένου.
- Origen on the ‘Gospel of Basilides’: in Luc. hom. I. On Basilides’ doctrine of reincarnation: PG 14.1015.
- Basilides: as a ‘Path to Plotinus’: Jufresa 1981. As an ‘Aristotelianizing Gnostic’: Bos 2000. One of the first Christian philosophers: Layton 1989, we cite p. 136. Earliest known theory of planetary soul-vehicle: I.P. Couliano. Out of this World: Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Shambhala, Boston, MA/London, 1991, p. 193. ‘Buddhist Gnostic’: J. Kennedy. ‘Buddhist Gnosticism, the System of Basilides’. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, pages 377–415, April 1902.
- Jorge Luis Borges: see quotation above at the head of the episode notes.
- Carl Gustav Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Vintage, New York, NY, 1963.
- Idem. The Red Book: Liber novus. NY/London, 2009. WW Norton & Co, New York, NY.
- James Brown, Super Bad, off the album of the same name (KS 1127, KING 1127), 1971.
- The Louvin Brothers, Broadminded (Capitol Records 2381), 1953.
The extant fragments of Basilides can be found conveniently gathered together and in English in: Bentley Layton. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, New York, 1995, pp. 417-444.
- Abraham P. Bos. ‘Basilides as an Aristotelianizing Gnostic’. Vigiliae Christianae, 54(1): 44–60, 2000.
- Robert M. Grant. ‘Place de Basilide dans la theologie chretienne ancienne’. Revue des études augustinniennes, 25, 1979.
- A. Harnack. Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. Teil I, Die Überlieferung und der Bestand, Halbband I, Sektion II.1(8), Basilides. Hinrichs, Leipzig, 2nd edition, 1958.
- A. Hilgenfield. Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums urkundlich dargestellt. Fues, Leipzig, 1884, pp. 195-230.
- M. Jufresa. ‘Basilides, A Path to Plotinus’. Vigiliae Christianae, (35):1–15, Mar. 1981.
- Bentley Layton. ‘The Significance of Basilides in Ancient Christian Thought’. Representations, (28):135–51, 1989.
- Winrich A. Löhr. Basilides und seine Schule. Number 83 in Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1996.
- J. Waszink. ‘Basilides’. In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, volume 1. 1950.
- J. Whittaker. ‘Basilides on the Ineffability of God’. Harvard Theological Review, 62(3): 367–371, Jul. 1969.
- H. A. Wolfson. ‘Negative Attributes in the Church Fathers and the Gnostic Basilides’. Harvard Theological Review, (50):145–156, 1957.