Within the whirling vortex of Alexandrian intellectual life, philosophies and movements sprang up and sank, carrying myriad forgotten figures with them. In the sombre times which Hesiod called the Age of Iron and the Age of Zeus, encompassing the whole of recorded history, every renaissance seems to emerge in a context of psychological decline, moral decay and social disintegration. Souls risk a great deal in times when the spiritual stakes are high, for just as doors are opened, one finds that one cannot avoid choosing whether to pass through them or to remain outside. Alexandria in the second and third centuries was the centre of a renaissance in which ancient traditions, creative thought and pellucid insight fused alchemically in a diversity of noble perspectives, each with its own firm commitments, intense faith and exacting way of life.
Out of this seminal stream of ideation would arise the neo-Platonic universalism of Ammonius Saccas and the Christian application of his student Origen. The tributaries to that fluorescent river included the world's philosophies and religions – classical Greek and Iranian spirituality, Buddhist and Hebrew teachings, the School of Pythagoras and the mysteries of Zeus-Ammon, as well as earlier Egyptian magic. Perhaps it is not surprising that Christianity, whose founder had lived in Egypt as a youth and whose heritage included Joseph's journey to Egypt and the exodus of Moses, should find its deep well-spring in the land of Khem. Gnostic Christianity, as if returning to its true source, found a warm welcome and fertile ground along the Nile.
Jesus declared that he had an exoteric teaching for the multitudes. Cast largely in parables and in seeds for meditation, it would lead the intuitive individual to a deeper understanding of "the way, the truth and the life". For those prepared to sacrifice everything to Christ on the throne of the Kingdom of Heaven within each human heart, Jesus gave the esoteric teaching which could not be conveyed to those unprepared to understand it. These initiated disciples constituted what Elaine Pagels has called "the initiation church", which was governed by silence and secrecy, girded by the inward illumination which gives gnosis, self-validating spiritual knowledge, and aims at the universal enlightenment of humanity. Renouncing all concern with public recognition, prestige and external organization, this church recognized several teachers and a rich diversity of expressions, under the aegis of the authentic tradition, for the sake of transmitting the pristine light of gnosis to courageous disciples ready to seek the Christos in their inmost consciousness. Amongst the brightest luminaries of the second century is Basilides, whose cosmogony supported the subtlest ethics and inspired disciples for three centuries.
The life of Basilides left no discernible track in history or legend, though the line of spiritual teachers from which he descended is known. Simon Magus, a Samaritan whose enigmatic teachings were replete with a rare luminosity, was singled out by the early church as its chief enemy. His foremost disciple and fellow Samaritan, Menander, "also attained the pinnacle of the magical art", according to Irenaeus. His authentic magic or soul-wisdom promised self-conscious immortality to those who could pass through the spiritual baptism which washes away attachment to every angel and principality below the unknowable First Power. Menander in turn had two chief disciples, Satornilos of Antioch and Basilides of Alexandria. Tradition holds that Basilides was Alexandrian by birth, and though for a time he was said to have "preached amongst the Persians", he consecrated the whole of his life to teaching in his home city, most probably around AD. 130. Unlike his near contemporary and fellow Alexandrian, Valentinos, Basilides did not found a school of disciples, preferring to teach and advise those who came to him from every quarter. His only identifiable disciple was his son Isidoros, whose Ethika contained the ethical elaboration of his father's metaphysics. The teachings of Basilides survive through the unsympathetic eyes of two self-appointed heresiologists, Irenaeus, who freely invents where he cannot distort, and Hippolytus, who is honest, if selective, with his information.
Basilides taught that in the beginning Nothing was, "simply nothing, without any mental reservations or sophistry". According to Hippolytus,
This ultimate origin which has no name and can receive no predicates is beyond matter and being, beyond being and non-being, and is referred to only in the denial of opposites. As a kind of shorthand for an indefinitely long list of negations, Basilides called this utterly transcendental Absolute 'Unbeing'. Whilst nothing can be said of Unbeing, since It does not will, think or perceive, and whilst Its relation to the manifest cosmos is lost in the mystery of total negation, the apex where highest noetic thought encounters emptiness, Basilides says that It 'felt' like creating the world. This feeling is akin to the equally imponderable desire in the striking verse of the Rig Veda: "Desire first arose in It."
Out of this quite unthinkable process, the seed of Cosmos arose, like the point in a circle. This noumenal seed contained in potentia all that would subsequently unfold from it, just as a mustard seed contains not only roots, trunk, branches and leaves, but also the seeds of all future generations of the plant. Within this divine seed at the most metaphysical level, a "threefold filiation" or sonship existed. One part consists of supremely refined particles, the second of grosser particles and the third of particles which require purification, the three together composing a kind of Monadic stream which subdivides with the elaboration of the world and which constitutes that unfoldment. The most refined filiation at once rushed to reunite with Unbeing. Since the threefold filiation is consubstantial with every manifest being, though varying in proportion and degree, all beings naturally yearn for Unbeing as That which lies beyond "superabundant beauty and grace". The grosser filiation was like a wingless bird, unable to rise on its own. To gain wings, the second sonship practised good deeds and benefitted from them, diffusing a profound spirit of goodwill throughout the cosmos. This hagion pneuma, sacred breath or holy spirit, lifted the second filiation towards Unbeing, for the sonship needed this breath to rise and the breath depended on the filiation to be stirred.
The third filiation remained in the husk of the seed, where it purified itself through doing good deeds and benefitting from them. The ascent of the first filiation directly to Unbeing provided the channel for all subsequent ascents. The second sonship followed, but wings can carry a bird no higher than the density of air permits. So this filiation rose to that point of sublime rarefaction where it must hover on its wings of divine breath, marking the division between this world and the World Above, signifying that interface between celestial and supercelestial reality figured in the canopy of the fixed stars. Thus were laid the noumenal foundations of the world.
Out of the seminal abundance of the cosmic seed which remained to be purified, the great Archon burst forth, "of unutterable beauty, greatness and strength". Wiser, more powerful and more transcendent than anything in the world, save only the purest potential of the remaining filiation, the great Archon was nevertheless ignorant of everything beyond the sacred pneuma. As Lord, Commander and wise Architect, the great Archon began to create the world in detail. From the numinous materials already present, he first created a Son wiser and more magnificent than himself. Marvelling at this creation and unaware that he only reduplicated in his own mighty sphere the process which had given rise to Cosmos itself, he placed his Son in the superior position on his right hand. Together they completed the whole etheric creation, the realm called Ogdoas, the Eighth, after the eighth sphere of the fixed stars. Within the finished etheric creation, a second Archon arose out of the abundance of the seed, also magnificent in every way though less so than the great Archon. Basilides warned,
Thus, only the second Archon can be expressed in language. Everything ontologically prior to his appearance is beyond discursive thought. The second Archon abides in the Hebdomas, the Seventh, the seat of the manifest world as symbolized in the seven sacred planets. He, too, created a Son wiser than himself, and together they manifested the world which encompasses the seminal potency of the third filiation. Thus was cosmogenesis completed.
This creative ontogenetic hierarchy is possible because the three principles of activity – periodicity of space and time, quality, and mode of creation – depend on no Demiurge or embodied intelligence but are part of the original triune seed. For Basilides, this vast panorama of cosmic unfoldment is the backdrop for the historical drama of humanity, itself a repetition of metaphysical and sempiternal events cast onto the refracting lens of time. The third filiation yearned to rise as is its nature, but unlike the first and second, its impurity prevented it from doing so. Just as Anthropos is, for the disciples of Hermes Trismegistus, the archetype of both incarnated man and order in nature, and as Adam Kadmon, the Heavenly Man of the Kabbalah, is the paradigm of the soul-powers of man and intelligence in the hierarchies of nature, so the third filiation of Basilidean doctrine is the soul in man and the natural world. To overcome the impurity which constitutes ignorance in the manifested world, even as the Archons are ignorant of what is above their worlds, something must break into and light up the tellurian darkness. Until this illumination occurred, the Archon of the Ogdoas seemed to be King and Lord of All. This is why, according to Basilides, the Archon of the Hebdomas spoke in Exodus, saying: "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I have not revealed the name of God unto them." In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul had written: "For creation itself groaneth and travailleth awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God." These sons of God manifest when they become gnostics, beings aware of Truth, true pneumatics filled with divine breath, able to bring ignorant souls into the divine order and set them on the road to perfection.
To effect the purification and enlightenment of incarnated humanity, who collectively constitute with nature the third filiation, the Gospel came into the world, descending through each sphere and realm.
Like one candle lighting the next, and so on from candle to candle, the fire of supernal wisdom passed from sphere to sphere down to humanity. The Gospel passed first to the Son of Ogdoas, who informed his father, the great Archon. The great Archon trembled at his previous innocent ignorance, and this is the meaning of the Psalmist's words: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom." Repenting his former ignorance, the great Archon followed the guidance of his Son, and the entire Ogdoas was filled with the blazing light of gnosis. Then the great Archon's Son communicated the same Mystery to the Son of the second Archon, whose realm is the Hebdomas, and the same process of enlightenment recurred.
Here the fiery Gospel spread throughout the creation of Hebdomas, which consists of three hundred and sixty-five heavens, each with its hierarchy and its archon, signified by the number of days in the terrestrial year. When the number of sacred planets, seven, is divided into the days of the year, three hundred and sixty-five, the result is fifty-two, the number of weeks in the year, with one remaining to represent the second Archon who presides over and knits together the whole Hebdomas. As the thread which binds the manifold heavens into one hebdomadic sphere, the second Archon spirals through them as Abrasax or Abraxas, whose name is 365. (In Greek alphanumerology A = 1, B = 2, R = 100, A = 1, S = 200, A = 1, X = 60, totalling 365.) Just as the Ogdoas was universally enlightened from the great Archon through his Son, and the Hebdomas was also enlightened in the same way, so the manifested world in which the third filiation continues to abide is enlightened by Jesus, the son of Mary.
Thus Basilides explained the words in the Gospel According to Luke: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee." The Gospel passed through the thread Abrasax into the world of men.
Jesus, a man who received the Light without reservation or rebellion, is illumined with the Wisdom of the World Above, and in this sense he is Soter, the saviour of humanity. Ours is the long epoch in which the Light is gradually communicated to every corner of the globe. The pneumatics, those who have been awakened by the fire of gnosis, do not follow Jesus out of this world in a rush for personal salvation, any more than the Archons abandoned their spheres when they discovered the truth. Rather, these self-selected elect remain in the world to aid the whole of humanity to fulfil its natural yearning for the unknowable Unbeing. The world shall continue unfolding itself until the entire third filiation, composed of particles or sparks in human beings, is constituted a single whole. This resplendent unity is the self-conscious brotherhood of humanity and its brotherhood with nature. Once recognized in the deepest awareness of human beings, the third filiation will truly follow Jesus through the channel Abrasax, through the Hebdomas, through the Ogdoas, and burst across the boundary line of the Holy Spirit, carrying the second filiation which has remained there as a beckoning threshold into ineffable union with and dissolution in Unbeing, a condition beyond any appellation, description or symbolic signification.
When the second filiation is released by the redemption of the third, it leaves behind the sacred breath, hagion pneuma, as an abandoned psychic vehicle, just as the third filiation – pneumatic or spiritual man – abandons its psychic vesture in its ascent to the Divine Unknowable. Unfortunately, at this point even the straightforward Hippolytus cannot understand the teachings he was anxious to find heretical. His garbled account suggests that Basilides taught that the holy breath which marked the boundary between the world and the World Above will settle into the psychic vesture of the liberated third filiation, ready to repeat the grand cosmic drama but one phase further along in evolution. When this happens, a great Ignorance covers all that is immortal but incapable of transcendence, and the cosmos sinks into a profound sleep. Perhaps this is the Pralaya of the Hindus, and perhaps it suggests a sleep after which an awakening dawn of cosmic activity follows.
The Gospel is knowledge of the World Above. When the great Archon of the Ogdoas learnt it, he "rejoiced and was exceeding glad", in the words of the Gospel According to Matthew. This joy is the 'good news' which was communicated from sphere to sphere until Jesus offered it to humanity. Infusion of the Christos-light into the formless world of ignorance brought spiritual order to nature and humanity. Thus the Christos is called Caulacau, a gnostic term derived from an obscure line in Isaiah, "qaw la qaw ' meaning 'precept upon precept'. The spiritual and ethical order found in the teachings of Jesus constitutes the pneumatic awakening of humanity to its true nature, history, inheritance and destiny. For Basilides, all salvation is universal, and redemption is nothing other than recovery from initial ignorance. This purifying enlightenment is gnosis, ultimate knowledge, but it shows in every human being who actively shares in it as ethical consciousness. Whilst pneumatics or gnostics may find man-made laws irrelevant and laughable, it is only because they have found within themselves a moral integrity so profound that it is the pure mirror of spiritual sight.
Isidoros, the son of Basilides, wrote that human beings have needs that are both necessary and natural, and fulfilling them is a condition of existence in the terrestrial realm, a product of the ignorance of the third filiation as it pervades nature. Other human needs are natural but not necessary, and in discerning these the human mind begins to awaken to its inherent ethical awareness. Thus one who says, "I do not desire to do wrong", but thinks only on the wrongdoing, refrains from error only from fear of external punishment. There is nothing righteous, nothing partaking of gnosis, in this standpoint. As surely as moral laxity, this stance allows accretions to collect on the metaphysically simple soul. The soul which is overgrown with accretions blocks itself from the radiant vibration of the Light and isolates itself from participation in the brotherhood of humanity. Blind allegiance to regulations will not help: ethical mastery comes from the moral awareness of a spiritually alert mind, and this means getting to the core of oneself and of nature with the use of noetic reason. When one does this, the radiance of the Light within meets the greater consubstantial Light without, and all accretions are burnt away. When the Christos-light is released, it naturally and invariably joins with the Christos, just as the stream returns to the ocean; and as the ray to its luminary, the soul returns to its unknown and ever-unknowable Source.
Basilides taught truths that frightened worldly-minded churchmen, for he held that Jesus was not an instrument for creeds and institutions, but rather the representative of that in men and women which transcends the laws of this world, the worlds themselves, soaring beyond history and cosmogony, beyond space and time, one with the One which has no Name. So powerful was his message that despite the fact he founded no school, and despite the unflagging efforts of the church to destroy every vestige of his teaching, disciples followed the way he showed for three hundred years, and even as orthodox Christianity passed its first millennium, one could still hear in hushed whispers the name 'Basilides'.