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Forbidden Knowledge: Cognitive Transgression and “Ascent Above Intellect” in the Debate Between Plotinus and the Gnostics

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image of Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies

Throughout Enneads II.9[33], commonly called Against the Gnostics, Plotinus repeatedly complains that the gnostics claim to possess an extraordinary capability to undertake a visionary ascent beyond the divine Intellect itself so as to attain the transcendent (and hyper-noetic) deity: a claim which he considers the height of arrogance. Plotinus further implies that this gnostic claim was in some way connected with the disparagement of Plato and the Greek philosophical tradition. No explicit trace of such disparagement has been found. This paper argues that (1) the extant Platonizing Sethian corpus, and in particular the tractate Zostrianos (NHC VIII,1), envisions a complex hierarchy of types of souls, each correlated with both a different potential for visionary ascent and a corresponding position in the postmortem cycle of transmigration; that (2) Zostrianos tacitly suggests that the non-Sethian academic Platonists are those condemned to exile in the intermediary strata due to their cognitive overreach for the Good in the absence of Sethian revelation, and that (3) this reflects a gnostic deployment—against the Platonists themselves—of the supposedly Platonic injunction (in the 2nd Letter) that the soul’s attempt to comprehend the supreme principle, with which the soul has no kinship, inevitably leads to a fall into evil.

Affiliations: 1: Université Laval


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