There Are Three Kinds of People….
There are two kinds of people–those who divide people into groups and those who don’t.
There are three kinds of people–those who can count and those who can’t.
Okay, enough with the rimshot-level bad jokes…. I do want to look at a particular way of dividing people into groups, though–three groups, to be precise. I will explain why a little later. The model I’m going to discuss is of Gnostic origin. As regular readers know, I have a certain amount of sympathy for many Gnostic concepts, while remaining (mostly) orthodox myself. I have, in fact, written a series about Gnosticism, to which this post belongs. Many aspects of the Gnostic mythos have passed into contemporary pop culture, with some themes practically becoming tropes; e.g. the dichotomy between the illusory world of appearances and the true world as it is, the control of the world by sinister demiurgic or archontic powers, and the necessity of special knowledge (gnosis) to see the world as it is. The theme I want to look at here is much less frequently discussed in the culture at large, although well-known, if perhaps not widely spoken of, in Gnostic circles.
To set the stage, let us rehearse, in supremely condensed style, the overall thrust of the Gnostic worldview (or “mythos”, which I later discussed at much greater length over here). Generally the Gnostic worldview sees the cosmos in strongly dualistic terms, divided between spirit, which is held to be holy and pure, and matter, which is held to be evil and tainted. The True God–sometimes called the “Alien God”–is purely spiritual, and neither made the material world nor had anything to do with it. His realm consists of the lower beings, pure minds, which the True God emanated from His own essence. The combination of all these beings–usually referred to in Gnostic contexts as “Aeons”, but equivalent to what we’d call “angels”–along with God is the Pleroma–the Fullness.
At some point, there is a fracture in this primal unity. This fracture is described in various ways in different traditions, usually in mythical language. The best-known account is the Fall of Sophia, but there are other traditions. In any case, as a result of this fracture or fall, a being comes into existence who is named in various ways, but which is commonly referred to in modern discourse as the Demiurge. The Demiurge originates out of the fracture in the Pleroma, but being far below the Aeons and himself ignorant, he thinks himself to be the one true god. Though he cannot perceive the Pleroma, he has a distorted image of it in his mind, and using this image as a template, he makes the material world. Assisting him are demonic beings known as Archons (“Rulers”), who either also resulted from the fracture in the Pleroma or were created by the Demiurge. Being deprived of the true spirit of the Pleroma, the Demiurge and the Archons cannot truly create, but merely imitate. Even this becomes a chop-job, given the ignorance and darkness of mind of the Demiurge and his minions. Thus, the resultant cosmos is a sort of warped reflection, a fun-house mirror image of the Pleroma. Instead of a perfectly good God of spirit at the top of the Pleroma, accompanied by Aeons, our cosmos is ruled by an ignorant (at best) and malicious (at worst) Demirge, ruling a cesspit cosmos of matter, accompanied by Archons. Appropriately, just as the real world is the Fullness, the Pleroma, the creation of the Demiurge is sometimes called the Kenoma–the Emptiness. This is the background against which is set the drama of human destiny.
In most Gnostic accounts, humans are composite beings consisting of a material body and a spiritual soul. The body is part of the material creation in which the soul, a spark of the light of the Pleroma, has been trapped. How this has happened varies according to the specific account–one of the best-known is in the Apocryphon of John (also known as the Secret Book of John). In any case, the soul and the body are completely at odds with each other by nature. The material world is imperfect and limiting at best, evil at worst. Therefore, the body, being itself material, is a sort of prison for the soul. The soul, being ultimately of the Pleroma, is trapped in the material world, in which it can never be truly at home. It yearns for its true home, the Pleroma. This dissatisfaction, this subliminal feeling that there is something wrong with the world, that it is not what it seems and that we do not belong here, is well expressed by the character Morpheus in the very Gnostically-inclined movie The Matrix:
What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
This is what I have elsewhere referred to as the fundamental Gnostic insight.
As long as this insight remains subliminal, the soul is subject to the temptations of the illusory material world and subjugation by the Archons, which are generally thought to actively conspire to keep human souls imprisoned in the material world. The soul is forced to return again and again through reincarnation to imprisonment in material bodies. Only by attaining Gnosis–the saving transcendental knowledge of one’s true nature–can one be liberated from the material, so that one’s soul, on death, is reunited with the Pleroma, leaving the material world–the Kenoma, “Emptiness”–behind forever.
That’s the summary of the Gnostic view of life, the universe, and everything, to use Douglas Adams’s term. As usual, the devil is in the details. Just as there are divisions within orthodox Christianity–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant–there were different schools of Gnostic Christianity (and some Gnostics, such as the Manicheans, who were not Christian at all). Such schools as the Sethian, Valentinian, and Thomasine (this last is disputed) varied in many details. In this context I want to look at the Valentinian view of humanity.
Valentinianism is named, unsurprisingly, for Valentinus, the most prominent Gnostic teacher of the first half of the 2nd Century. “Valentinus” is the name usually Anglicized as “Valentine”. The English form is used for the saint (or saints–there are several of that name) whom we celebrate on February 14th; but the Latin form is usually used in speaking of the Gnostic. Valentinus was said to be a disciple of a man named Theudas, who in turn was supposedly a disciple of St. Paul of Tarsus himself. Valentinus was living in Rome around 136 AD, where is said to have been a popular and charismatic leader and preacher. He is also said to have written many books on spiritual themes. Tertullian, the early Church writer, says that Valentinus was short-listed for being selected as Bishop of Rome–that is, Pope–but that, failing to obtain that office, he formed a breakaway church of his own. There is some evidence that Valentinianism survived as late as the 4th Century.
Irenaeus, the founder of heresiology (the genre of writing that tries to identify and oppose beliefs claimed to be heretical), discussed the doctrines of Valentinianism in his famous Against Heresies. In the following passage, Irenaeus explains Valentinus’s teaching on human nature (courtesy of here):
They conceive, then, of three kinds of men, spiritual, material, and animal, represented by Cain, Abel, and Seth. These three natures are no longer found in one person, but constitute various kinds [of men]. The material goes, as a matter of course, into corruption. The animal, if it make choice of the better part, finds repose in the intermediate place; but if the worse, it too shall pass into destruction.–Against Heresies I. 7, 5
In modern times, nothing written directly by Valentinus or his followers themselves was known to have survived, so we had only Irenaeus’s word on their beliefs. When the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in 1945, it was eventually realized that some of the documents it contained were actually Valentinian scriptures. One of them, the Tripartite Tractate, has this to say about humans (courtesy of here):
Mankind came to be in three essential types, the spiritual, the psychic, and the material, conforming to the triple disposition of the Logos, from which were brought forth the material ones and the psychic ones and the spiritual ones. Each of the three essential types is known by its fruit.
The spiritual race will receive complete salvation in every way. The material will receive destruction in every way, just as one who resists him. The psychic race, since it is in the middle when it is brought forth and also when it is created, is double according to its determination for both good and evil.–Tripartite Tractate 14
This is in close alignment with what Irenaeus says, and we may thus take this vision of human nature to be an accurate account of Valentinian teaching, and not a distortion produced by Irenaeus.
Thus, for the Valentinians, there are three categories of people. The highest are the pneumatics (from pneuma, “spirit”), referred to in the extracts above as “spiritual”. These people contain sparks of the light of the Pleroma. They are thus by the very nature of their being not of this world at all, belonging instead to the Pleroma, the realm of the True God. The pneumatics are ultimately destined to return to the Pleroma, and thus are assured of salvation no matter what happens. They are the elite of the human race. The second category of people are the psychics–from psyche, which can mean, depending on the context, “soul” or “life”. In this context, “natural” might be the best translation. In the extracts above, the term is variously translated “animal” or simply transliterated as “psychic” (which in this context does not mean having paranormal powers, but being merely akin to natural life). The psychics are intermediate. They may, through evil living, be damned. This consists of either a hell-like existence or outright destruction–the sources aren’t clear. If they live a life of purity they are saved, either attaining to the Pleroma, or to a slightly lower but still blissful state–once more, the sources are unclear.
The lowest category of humans are the hylics, from hyle, “matter”, referred to above as “material”. Unlike the pneumatics, the hylics lack a spark of the Light. Unlike the psychics, the hylics are unable to choose for the true good by following the light. The hylics are understood to be material in all respects–their only concern is for food, sex, and material pleasures. They have no interest in higher things. To use modern terminology, one could say that the pneumatics have a soul–a spark of the light–whereas the psychics develop a soul through turning towards the light; and that by contrast, the hylics lack a soul altogether. They could be accurately described as philosophical zombies–beings that look and act like humans, but lack self-awareness, higher thought, inner experience–in short, what we’d usually call a soul. Alternately, to use the term bandied about by the fallen angels in the Prophecy franchise of movies, the hylics are “talking monkeys”. In any case, the hylics, according to Valentinian thought, are in essence merely animals that look human; and like animals, they will perish utterly, ceasing to exist altogether upon their deaths.
This is obviously a very pessimistic view of humanity. One category of people, the psychics, may be saved or may be damned, which is no worse than the typical attitude of traditional orthodox Christianity. The elite, the pneumatics, will be saved no matter what, which seems unfair. The hylics not only won’t be saved, but can’t be saved, and are in effect not even real people. Certainly, such a view is not conducive to any ideas of a brotherhood of man, as traditional Christianity has taught. The sources, as far as I can find out, are silent as to the proportions of humanity of which each of the three groups are composed. Typically, Gnostic systems of thought tended to view the elite as relatively few, so the pneumatics were probably thought of as being a tiny minority. As to psychics vs. hylics, we don’t know; but given the dim view of worldliness taken by many Gnostics, it’s quite possible that they thought that the majority of humanity is hylic.
The sources are also silent as to how one knows to which category she or her friends and loved ones belong. If one were a hylic, by definition one wouldn’t care, so the question would never–could never–come up. Thus, if you’re asking the question, at least you know you’re not hylic. But how do you know if you are psychic or pneumatic, or if your wife or husband or mother or father or son or daughter or colleague is pneumatic or psychic or hylic? There are often assumptions in the scriptures that the pneumatics may receive special saving knowledge–Gnosis. This is not knowledge of information or discursive “how to” knowledge, but a deep, direct intuitive knowledge of one’s true nature and of the Pleroma. Of course, that puts us into the same dilemma of the Dharmic faiths and “enlightenment”. What, exactly, is “enlightenment”? How do you know if you’ve attained it? If someone else claims to be enlightened, how do you know if she’s telling the truth? Alas, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and other schools give many different answers to all these questions. Certainly, there have been many, many teachers in these religions who have been involved in highly questionable activities, who are still stoutly defended by some as being “enlightened”, while others criticize them as charlatans. Based on what we can know about ancient Gnostic groups, and on observation of Gnostic revival groups in the present day, they seem to have no better a handle on Gnosis than Buddhists and Hindus on enlightenment. Alas, the perversity of human nature.
Thus, there is the same problem in Valentinianism as in Calvinism–how do you tell the elect from the damned, to use Calvinist terminology? The answer is, “you can’t”, which tends to call the whole project into question. There is also the problem of predestination in both systems. The pneumatics are predestined to salvation, because they are of the Pleroma. The hylics are predestined to destruction, since they lack souls. The psychics at least have some choice. This is even murkier than Calvinist belief, actually. Traditional Calvinism says that God elects some to be saved as a way of manifesting His mercy, and destines some to be damned to manifest His justice. This is a horrible, almost demonic, potrait of God, but at least it’s logical and explains things. On the other hand, as far as I know, no Valentinian scriptures explain why some people are given no ability to rise beyond the material, or why only some people seem to have been given a spark of the Light. It seems quite arbitrary.
Many modern Gnostic teachers want to back away from this threefold division of humanity. They argue that hylic, psychic, and pneumatic are not different categories of people, but different tendencies within everyone. In other words, at our worst, we are all sometimes hylic, caring too much for the material and not taking the spiritual with due seriousness. Sometimes we are pneumatic, experiencing true spirituality and directing ourselves beyond this world. Sometimes we’re in between. This is certainly much more positive and optimistic, and opens the possibility of salvation to everyone, while not restricting the pneumatic to a small elite. Unfortunately, it really has no warrant in the actual scriptures, which are very clear that the three types of humans are different categories of people with different destinies, not different aspects of everyone’s personality, leaving equal salvation as a possibility for all. Alas, attempts to soften the original doctrine aside, there’s no evidence that the Valentinians believed in universal salvation, or even the salvation of very many at all.
There is a tendency in many contemporary Gnostic or Gnostic-sympathizing circles to paint Gnosticism as egalitarian, proto-feminist, eschewing judgemental moralistic finger-wagging, and having more optimism regarding the ability of humans to rise above this world and attain salvation. If you actually read the sources, none of these statements is true. The idea of a tiny spiritual elite is practically baked in to most forms of Gnosticism, making it far from egalitarian. You can find about as much unpleasantness in Gnostic writings about women as in orthodox. Certainly, the notion that your closest friends and loved ones might lack souls and be doomed to utter annihilation is hardly a positive view of human nature. As I’ve said many times in this blog, I have a certain amount of sympathy for aspects of Gnosticism and some aspects of Gnostic thought. On the other hand, I feel no need at all to sugar-coat it or ignore its nastier doctrines, either.
The thing about the three kinds of humans that particularly disturbs me is that I often find it to resonate with me. It seems to fit in with my experience. Especially in my career as a teacher, in which one is trying to elevate the minds of his students at least a little bit, but elsewhere as well, I have found over the years many cases in which I’ve interacted with people who had no apparent interest at all in anything beyond their immediate wants and needs, or plans to attain those wants and needs. To the extent that they assimilate information beyond the mere basic, it’s always completely instrumental–never appreciated for itself, but only insofar as it can help them obtain their material wants and needs. They seem to give no evidence of interest in art, music, or literature, beyond perhaps the simplest and basest entertainment; they take no mind for the future; they are uninterested in culture; and they have no goals beyond themselves, period. To put it bluntly, they seem exactly like talking monkeys, human in form alone, but lacking a recognizable soul.
That I can look at fellow human beings that way does not speak at all well of me, alas. Once you start viewing entire categories of people as soulless animals, you’re just a baby step away from eugenics, fascism, ethnic cleansing, and all kinds of other horrendous nastiness. Truly I can say, there but for the grace of God go I. Despite the fact that the Valentinian categorization of humanity makes emotional sense to me, I recognize what a horrible outlook that is, and what horrors it logically entails. It makes me grateful that I never went full-bore in for Gnosticism. I find aspects of Gnosticism fascinating and to a certain extent even plausible. However, I am content to remain a little-o orthodox Christian and admire Gnostic insight from afar. For all its imperfections and the sins committed by its followers, Christianity has always firmly taught that everyone without exception, even those who seem to us to be “talking monkeys”, are made in God’s image, and thus precious to him, of equal worth and value as anyone, even the most supposedly spiritually elite, and worthy of being treated equally as precious children of God.
I should note that it is not clear that other schools of Gnosticism believed in such categories of people as the Valentinians did. Certainly, most modern Gnostics, as noted, would stoutly reject such notions, despite their presence in Gnostic scriptures. In rejecting this aspect of Gnostic teaching and hewing to orthodoxy, I certainly am not being an apologist for the failures of orthodox Christianity, nor am I making myself out to be a fantastic person. So much the contrary, I see the nastiness in my soul and I realize that I have managed to dodge a metaphysical bullet. Actually, I can’t even claim that–any dodging I’ve done is by God’s grace, not by my own feeble efforts.
In conclusion, then, there are not three types of people, or two types of people–just one kind. That kind is humankind in all its glory and depravity, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. Our task is to realize this, that there are no elites or dregs–just sinful, imperfect people, all our brothers and sisters, none of whom is so bad that we ourselves, with less luck, could not have ended up the same way. May we all combat the hylic, elevate the psychic, and emulate the pneumatic within ourselves, and help others do so, too.
Part of the series “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy“
Posted on 15/07/2018, in Christianity, Gnosticism, religion, theology and tagged Against Heresies, Christianity, Gnosticism, God's image, humanity, hylic, Irenaeus, pneumatic, psychic, religion, Sethianism, The Matrix, theology, Tripartite Tractate, Valentinianism, Valentinus. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.