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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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III. DUALISM IN THEOLOGY

Pre-Gnostic Dualism. Around the beginning of the
Christian era, dualistic ideas appeared in Judaism, in
which, however, they remain limited by the rigorous
monotheism. Whether due to the influence of the
Iranian religion or to the autonomous development of
Judaism, Jewish writers teach that God acts and even
has created the world by means of two opposing
powers. According to the Rule of Qumrān (III-IV),
two spirits created by God, the Prince of Lights and
the Angel of Darkness, dominate the world. Philo (ca.
13 B.C.-ca. A.D. 50) says, though only in a single text,
that God created the world by means of two powers,
one of which is the cause of good things, the other
of evil things (Quaestiones in Exodum, I, 23). Philo
is, moreover, a Platonist, and it is not certain that for
him matter was created by God. The Jewish Apoca-
lyptic opposes the present to the future world in a sort
of temporal dualism. But nowhere in Judaism is the
denial of the value of the world carried to the point
to which Gnosticism went and where even certain texts
of early Christianity extended. The Qumrān's angel of
darkness is not the “prince of the world”; the two
spirits are in the world “in equal proportion.”

Gnostic Dualism. Historians gave the name
“Gnosticism” at first to a group of Christian heresies
which appeared towards the end of the first century.
These various and numerous heresies had in common
their rejection of the Old Testament and especially of
the biblical doctrine of creation. The world is neither
created nor governed directly by God, but by inferior
blind powers that do not know God. The Yahweh of
the Bible, creator of the world, is only the chief of
these lower powers; he created without knowing the
true Good. The world is not of God (directly), and the
soul, a spark of the divine, is not of this world. The
soul, enslaved in this world, can be freed, become
conscious of its origin, and ascend to God only by grace
of gnosis, the supernatural knowledge brought by the
divine Savior.

To some extent, therefore, the Gnostics attributed
an origin to the world different from the soul's origin.
Moreover, they employed the Greek dualism of soul
and matter. Yet they were not completely dualistic,
for according to them the Creator was somehow re-
lated to the true God, as one of His angels or as an
offspring in the genealogy of emanations. Besides, the
true God, if He had not wished the Creation, had at
least permitted it. Thus their dualism was neither ab-
solute nor systematic. It resided above all in a feeling
that the world is alien to God, and that there is between
God and nature a gulf which cannot be crossed except
by God.

Gnosticism was particularly vigorous in the second
century. But, condemned by the Church of Rome to-
ward the middle of that century, it became more and
more syncretist. The later Gnostics, inheritors of a
Christianity detached from the Old Testament, saw no
difficulty in uniting it with pagan traditions (Platonism,
the Mysteries, Oriental religions). On the other hand,
from about the middle of the second century, we meet
ideas of a Gnostic nature no longer only among the
Christians, but in writings which seem to be pagan,
for example, the Hermetica. Gnostic ideas are also
found later in Islam, and in Judaism in the Kabbala.

Thus, after a certain epoch, Gnostic ideas seem to
be no longer tied necessarily to Christianity. This per-
mits many modern scholars to hold that Gnosticism
was not essentially a Christian heresy; that from its
origin, contrary to what the Church Fathers believed,
it was a great current of thought which, while mingling
with Christianity, existed apart from it and perhaps
even before it. These scholars have searched for its
origins principally in Zoroastrianism, in Hellenism, or
in certain trends of Judaism. Nevertheless, these re-
searches have not yet resulted in conclusions of any
certainty. The problem of the origins of Gnosticism
is still ardently discussed. It is true that after a certain
epoch Gnostic ideas spread beyond Christian circles,
but still one cannot be at all sure that these ideas were
not born there. No Gnostic text before Christianity is
known, and the most ancient known Gnostics are
Christians. In addition, it seems even more difficult to
explain the profound opposition between God and the
world by Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism than
by the New Testament. In the fourth Gospel, for exam-
ple, the opposition between God and the world is
already emphasized nearly as much as among the
Gnostics.

It is possible that the crucifixion of Christ, that is
to say, the defeat of the Just One in the world, caused
this deep pessimism with regard to the world. Besides,
the Paulinist and Johannist idea that one could not be
saved except by divine Grace means that there is a
deep separation between nature and salvation.

Manicheism. Founded in the third century of our
era by the Persian Mani, Manicheism is one of the late,
syncretist forms of Gnosticism. Mani wanted to unite
Christianity (under its Gnostic form) with Zoroastrian-
ism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy. In fact, the part
played by Gnostic Christianity is by far the most im-


043

portant part of his doctrine. But he made Gnostic
dualism more rigid and more systematic, reinforcing
it on the model of Zoroastrian dualism. With him the
two principles are truly independent and co-eternal.
Evil for him was identical with matter, but he de-
scribed evil as having traits which reminded one of
Ahriman.

Nobody was as consciously and voluntarily a dualist
as Mani. For him the positing of two principles was
the foundation of all true religion. By assembling
Gnostic myths, he constructed a great myth which
described the primitive separation of the two principles
(Light, the substance of the soul, and Darkness, that
is to say, matter); then their mixture, after Darkness
attacked Light and engulfed some of its parts; then
the way the particles of Light (souls) can be freed from
Darkness and return to their source. He announced that
some day all creatures would be brought back to their
origin, that the principles would once again be sepa-
rated, this time forever.

It is often believed that the Manicheans divided all
the creatures of the world into absolutely good or
absolutely evil beings. This tendency is, however,
rather typical of the Zoroastrians. For the Manicheans,
everything in the world was a mixture; pure goodness
and evil existed only in the principles. Moreover, the
Manicheans were neither violent nor intolerant; they
adapted their language to that of other religions,
thinking that there was something good in nearly all
of them. Salvation for them did not consist in fighting
against certain beings, but in fighting against matter
(Darkness) in themselves, and in escaping from the
world.

Dualistic Heresies of the Middle Ages. The dualistic
heresies of the Middle Ages—that of the Paulicians,
who flourished in Armenia and Asia Minor between
the seventh and the tenth centuries, and continued later
in the Balkans; that of the Bogomils, whose doctrine
started in Bulgaria and spread in the Balkans between
the tenth and the fifteenth centuries; that of the
Cathari, who flourished in Western Europe in the
twelfth and the thirteenth centuries—probably sprang
not from Manicheism but, like Manicheism itself, from
Gnosticism, which had continued in the Orient. The
principle of all these dualisms is still the profound
distinction between God and the world.

Augustinian Theology. It has sometimes been held
that Manicheism exerted some influence on the theol-
ogy of Saint Augustine, who, in his youth, was a
Manichean for nine years. But whatever there is of
dualism in him seems rather to come from Saint Paul
and Saint John the Evangelist, who, without themselves
being Gnostics, may have been the principal inspirers
of Gnosticism. Be that as it may, Saint Augustine kept
alive in occidental theology a rather strong dualistic
trend by his deep separation of Nature from Grace.
We find this sort of dualism again in Luther and in
the Jansenists.