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Valentinian Monism

Valentinianism is ussually classified as a form of Gnosticism. The term 'Gnosticism' was coined in the nineteenth century to describe a variety of religious movements in the ancient world which have some common features.

Some consider "radical dualism" to be a characteristic feature of all forms of Gnosticism (Jonas 1963). However, this generalization is simply incorrect. As Elaine Pagels points out in her book The Gnostic Gospels, "Valentinian gnosticism...differs essentially from dualism" (Pagels 1978). Describing Gnostic systems such as Valentinianism as "dualist" has also been subject to extensive criticism by Simon Petrement (1990). Indeed, it has been recognized for some time that "a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic" (Schoedel 1980, see also Petrement 1984, Dawson 1992). This article represents an attempt to characterize Valentinian monism.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines monism as describing "philosophies which maintain that there is ultimately only one thing and that the many are aspects of it, or to a more radical way of thinking, simply an illusion resulting from our misperception of the One". As we will see, this is an accurate description of Valentinianism.

Valentinian sources describe God as containing all things within himself. An anonymous Valentinian quoted by Irenaeus claims that, "the Father of all contains all things, and that there is nothing whatever outside of the Pleroma..." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:4:2). Using virtually identical language, another author argues that God "contains in himself all things and is himself not contained" (Doctrinal Epistle quoted in Epiphanius Panarion 31:5:3). A similar background can be seen Ptolemy's in description of the Father as "uncontained" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:1:1).

Valentinus himself says describes the relationship of God to all other things using similar language. He says that "the entirety was inside of him--the inconceivable, uncontained, who is superior to all thought."(Gospel of Truth 17:5-9) Elsewhere he describes God as "him who surrounds every way while nothing surrounds him" (Gospel of Truth 22:22-26) According to the Valentinian Exposition found at Nag Hammadi, "he possessed the All dwelling within him...He encompassed the All, he who is higher than the All". Another author argues that, "in the Unbegotten One, all things exist simultaneously" (Hippolytus Refutation of all Heresies). The Gospel of Philip argues that "Christ has each within him, whether human being or angel or mystery" (Gospel of Philip 56:14-15).

Such terminology is an extremely significant argument in favour of monism. It implies that there is a single reality i.e. God who is "cause of the generation of all created things" (Valentinan Treatise source quoted in Hippolytus Refutation). All other things lie within him and continue to be a part of him. According to the respected scholar of Gnosticism Bentley Layton (1987), this sort of teaching implies a "cosmological model...provided by Stoic pantheistic monism" in which "all is enclosed by God and ultimately all is God". William Schoedel (1972, 1980) researched the use of such topological language in Jewish, Christian and Gnostic sources. He argues that "such theology presupposes a non-dualistic cosmology; for it does not allow that the God who contains all things is limited by any other reality" (Schoedel 1972).

This is in sharp contrast to Hans Jonas' characterization of Gnostic teaching on the relationship of God to rest of reality . He claims that "to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness" (Jonas 1963). As we can see, this is inaccurate in the case of Valentinianism. The divine realm is not "self-contained and remote". Rather it contains all things within itself including the cosmos.

This is explicitly stated by the Valentinians who opposed Irenaeus: "In the Fullness, or in those things that are contained by the Father, the whole creation which we know to have been formed, having been made by the Craftsman or by the angels. It is contained by the ineffable Greatness, as the center is in a circle, or as a spot is in a garment." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:4:2). All things continue to be a part of God despite their apparent separation from him.

The fact that we have come forth within the Father does not imply that we are acquainted with him. According to Valentinus, God is ultimately responsible for the creation of all things "It is he who created the entirety and the entirety is in him" (Gospel of Truth 19:8-9) However, the "entirety" i.e. those within the Father "were unacquainted with the Father since it was he whom they did not see"(Gospel of Truth 28:32-29:1). Being only a small part of reality, they are unable to perceive it completely on their own. In vain, "the entirety searched for the one from whom they had emanated" (Gospel of Truth 17:4-6). It is something of a paradox that we are within God, yet we do not recognize or know him. As Valentinus says, "It was quite amazing that they were in the Father without being acquainted with him and that they alone were able to emanate, inasmuch as they were not able perceive and recognize the one in whom they were" (Gospel of Truth 22:27-32)

Due to our ignorance of God we can fall into an erroneous or false understanding of reality ("error" or "deficiency"). According to Valentinus, "Ignorance of the Father caused agitation and fear. And the agitation grew dense like fog, so that no one could see. Thus error found strength" (Gospel of Truth 17:9-20). According to Valentinians, the material universe that we perceive is an illusion deriving from our ignorance of the Father. This is often expressed by Valentinians though the story of Sophia. This myth describes Sophia's ignorance of God and the suffering that results. It is the suffering that results from her error that constitutes the material realm.

Valentinian sources occasionally describe the material realm as "outside" of the Fullness. As Schoedel(1972) notes, "They insist that their local language is relevant only epistemologically" and that it does not imply that the material realm is outside of the Father. Instead, they claimed that "what is without and what within (the Pleroma is) in reference to knowledge and ignorance, and not with respect to local distance" (Anonymous Valentinian quoted in Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:4:2). The material realm of is a product of the Fullness and lies within it "as the center is in a circle, or as a spot is in a garment" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:4:2). As Schoedel (1980) observes, Irenaeus' Valentinian opponents were willing to present "a resolutely monistic interpretation of their theology and to stress the epistomological significance of the spatial language of their mythology. They could imagine a realm of 'vacuity and shadow' within the Father presumably because it was felt to be epiphenomenal to the reality of spirit".

As Layton (1987) points out, the Valentinian teaching exemplified by the Gospel of Truth "is strongly anti-materialist, even illusionist, as regards the reality of material structures". Valentinus describes the "realm of appearance" as an bad dream as "when one falls asleep and finds one's self in the midst of nightmares" (Gospel of Truth 29:8-10f). The author of the Treatise on Resurrection similarly describes the material world as follows, "Suddenly the living are dying - surely they are not alive at all in this world of apparition! - the rich have become poor, rulers overthrown: all changes, the world is an apparition" (Treatise on Resurrection 48:19-27cf Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:14).

In contrast to the reality of the Father, "those things which are 'outside' of the Fullness have no true existence... These things are images of those which truly exist." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:14:3). The things we perceive in the physical world are often described as "images" or "shadows" of the divine realm. (Valentinian Exposition 36:10-13, Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:5:1,2:6:3, etc.) This is a reference to the famous Platonic parable which compares the physical world to shadows cast on the back wall of a cave. God is the only reality. However, we who are ignorant of the true situation mistake the shadows for reality. We construct an illusory false reality for ourselves because we are ignorant of the overall picture.

Even though physical things are seen as an image of the divine, Valentinians believed that one can get only an incomplete understanding of God as reflected in the physical realm. The name used to describe this imperfect image of God is the 'Craftsman' (demiurge). The Craftsman is God understood as the creator of the material realm and as a law-giver. However, Valentinian tradition makes clear that this is only an inferior image of the true God. According to the teacher Marcus, the Craftsman "could not express its (the divine) permanence and eternity because he was an offspring of deficiency" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:17:2).

It is due to our ignorance of the true nature of reality that we believe that things can be separated into opposites. This is discussed in the Gospel of Philip: "Light and darkness, life and death, right and left are mutually dependent; it is impossible for them to separate. Accordingly the 'good' are not good, the 'bad' are not bad, 'life' is not life, 'death' is not death." (Gospel of Philip 53:14-23). Categories that are considered as opposites are in fact closely related and one cannot be understood without the other. This is expressed in Valentinianism through the notion of the syzygy (pair). The term refers to the linking together of complementary qualities ("Aeons") of to form a state of wholeness (pleroma). This is the highest level of reality. The halves of a syzygy are often referred to as male and female. The male corresponds to form and the female corresponds to substance. There can be no concept of maleness without femaleness or no concept of darkness without light. Dualistic distinctions between "body" and "mind", "soul" and "matter" are meaningless. All things are ultimately one.

Just as the illusion arose as result of ignorance, it will be dissolved through knowledge (gnosis). Upon knowledge (gnosis) of God, the world of multiplicity vanishes. As an anonymous source puts it, "Since deficiency and suffering had their origin in ignorance, the entire system originating in ignorance is dissolved by knowledge (gnosis)" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:21:4 cf. also Irenaeus Against Heresies 2:4:3). The illusion of multiplicity vanishes once the person knows the true reality. According to Valentinus, "Inasmuch as the lack came into being because the Father was not known, from the moment the Father is known, the lack will not exist...lack passes away in completion, and so from that moment on, the realm of appearance is no longer manifest but will pass away in the harmony of unity...It is by acquaintance (gnosis) that all will purify themselves out of multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within themselves as fire" (Gospel of Truth 24:28-25:19 cf. also Treatise on Resurrection 48:38-49:4, Valentinus Fragment 4). The material world is an illusion that is dissolved by knowledge (gnosis) of God.

Not only does the realm of multiplicity pass away through knowledge (gnosis), so does the distinction between the self and God. To know God is to be God. According to the Gospel of Philip, "People cannot see anything in the real realm unless they become it...if you have seen the spirit, you have become the spirit; if you have seen Christ, you have become Christ; if you have seen the Father, you will become the Father" (Gospel of Philip 61:20-32 cf. 67:26-27). It represents a restoration to the syzygy, that is, the reestablishment of the link between the self and the divine.

Once you understand that reality, your perception of multiplicity is gone. The duality vanishes since it was never really there in the first place. According to the Gospel of Philip, "The world has already become the eternal realm (Aeon), for to this person the eternal realm is Fullness. As such, it is manifest to him or her alone, not hidden in the darkness and the night, but hidden in perfect day and holy light" (Gospel of Philip) It implies that for the person who has gnosis, there is no longer any distinction between the world and the Pleroma. Through gnosis one can participate in and experience the divine realm. As a result, "the Valentinian and his or her world have been completely absorbed by the divine fullness or entirety" (Dawson 1992).

The entire process of emanation from the Father, fall into illusion and restoration through gnosis takes place within the Godhead. As Dawson (1992) points out, "the patterns and sequences of nature and history now unfold simultaneously within the mind of God and the minds of the Valentinians". The reception of gnosis brings the dissolution of the world for the individual, such that "the apocalypse now takes place not in history but in the contrast to the dissapointment of history, and its division, struggle, fear and evil, the emanated Son brings the message that, despite all appearances to the contrary, reality is good..." (Dawson 1992) .

It is worth noting that Valentinianism shows an astonishing degree of similarity to another monistic system, the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy. In Advaita, the material world is an illusion (maya) attributed to ignorance (avidya) of the true reality. Through knowledge (jnana) of the ultimate reality (brahman), the world of multiplicity vanishes. True redemption (moksha) is the knowledge of one's true nature.

This raises the intriguing possibility of some kind of connection between the two. There was some awareness of Indian thought in the ancient Roman world. However, at the time of Valentinus, there was no systematic statement of Advaita thought. It is possible that Valentinus came into contact with some form of early Advaita Vedanta teaching. Advaita philosophy as it now stands was given its definitive form by Shankara in the 6th or 7th century AD. There also exists the possibility that he was influenced by Valentinian thought. Valentinians are known to have been active in the Middle East as late as the seventh century. It is possible that Valentinian missionaries or refugees may have made their way to India and come into contact with Shankara or his immediate predecessors. However, any connection between the two remains purely hypothetical.


Dawson,David. 1992. Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Jonas, Hans. 1963. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God. Beacon. Boston.

Layton, Bentley. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. Doubleday & Co. Garden City, NY.

Pagels, Elaine. 1978. The Gnostic Gospels. Random House. New York.

Petrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism. Harper. San Francisco.

Schoedel, William. 1972. "Topological Theology and some Monistic Tendencies in Gnosticism" in Essays on the Nag Hammadi Library in Honour of Alexander Bohlig, edited by Martin Krause. E.J.Brill. Leiden.

Schoedel, William. 1980. "Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth" in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus. edited by Bentley Layton. E.J.Brill. Leiden.

That All-Seeing Heart: Vedanta Basics Cited Mar 1, 2000.


Content authored by David Brons