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Tuesday 16 August 2011

A Gnostic fable

One of the central concepts of Gnosticism is the idea that Creation was a botched job, and hence the Creator (referred to as the Demiurge) couldn't have been the real God. Gnosticism was widespread in the early years of Christianity, but was then suppressed for almost a thousand years before re-emerging during the 20th century in the writings of people like Carl Jung and Philip K. Dick.

At least, that's what I used to think. However, I recently came across a short fable called Plato's Dream, written by the French satirist Voltaire (right) in 1756, which struck me as distinctly Gnostic in its message. It even uses the Gnostic term Demiurge, although in Voltaire's satire the Earth was created by a still more incompetent being called Demogorgon! Since Plato's Dream is out of copyright, and I couldn't find an English translation that didn't distort Voltaire's original, here is my own translation of the relevant passage:

... the great Demiurge, the eternal geometer, having peopled infinite space with innumerable globes, wanted to test the knowledge of the Spirits who had been witnesses of his work. He gave each of them a small piece of matter to arrange, a bit like Phidias and Zeuxis might have given their disciples statues and paintings to make, if it is permissible to compare small things with great ones.

Demogorgon had for his share the piece of mud that is called the Earth; and, having arranged it in the manner that one sees today, announced that he had made a masterpiece. He imagined he had subjugated envy, and waited for the praise of his companions; he was greatly surprised to be received by them with jeers.

One of them, who was a bit of a joker, said to him: "Truly you have worked very well; you have separated your world into two, and you have put a large volume of water between the two hemispheres, so that there is absolutely no communication from one to the other. People will freeze from the cold at your two poles, they will die of heat at your equator. You have prudently established large sandy deserts, in order that travellers will die there of hunger and thirst. I am happy enough with your sheep, cows and chickens; but frankly I am not too happy with your snakes and spiders. Your onions and artichokes are very good things, but I do not see what your idea was in covering the Earth with so many venomous plants, unless you had a design to poison its inhabitants. It appears moreover that you have formed some thirty species of apes, many more species of dog, and only one species of human: it is true that you have given this last animal something you call Reason; but, in all conscience, this Reason is too ridiculous, and approaches too much to folly. It appears moreover that you have not made a very good case for this animal, since you have given him so many enemies and so little defence, so many illnesses and so few remedies, so many passions and so little wisdom. Apparently you do not want many of these animals to remain on Earth; since, not counting the dangers to which you expose them, you have balanced your account so well that eventually smallpox will carry off regularly every year a tenth part of the species, while the sister of smallpox will poison the source of life in the nine-tenths that remain; and, as if that were not enough, you have so disposed things, that half of the survivors will be occupied in litigation, and the other half in killing each other; without doubt they will be very obliged to you, and what you have made here is a fine masterpiece."

Demogorgon reddened; he was aware there was moral and physical evil in his work; but he maintained that there was more good than evil. "It is easy to criticize," he said, "but do you think it is so easy to make an animal who is always rational, who is free, and who never abuses his freedom? Do you think that, when one has nine or ten thousand plants to tend to, it is so easy to prevent some of them from having harmful qualities? Do you imagine that given a certain quantity of water, sand, soil and heat, one can avoid having sea or desert? You, mocking sir, have just finished the planet Mars: we will see how well you have acquitted yourself, and what a beautiful impression your nights make without a moon; we will see if in your world there is neither folly nor disease."

Indeed, the Spirits examined Mars, and quickly fell to mockery. The earnest Spirit who had fashioned Saturn was not spared; his companions, the makers of Jupiter, of Mercury, of Venus, each had to undergo their own reproaches.

They started to write pamphlets and thick volumes; they spoke words of wisdom, they composed popular songs, they made jokes, then they grew bitter; at last the eternal Demiurge imposed silence on all of them: "You have made," he said to them, "both good and bad, because you have plenty of intelligence, and yet you are imperfect; your works will endure only for a few hundreds of millions of years; after which, being better instructed, you will do better: but it is only for me to make things that are perfect and immortal."

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