Reviews of

The Demiurge in Ancient Thought

In Cambridge University Press, Carl Séan O'BRIEN, Demiurge, Gnosticism, Paul Linjamaa on June 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm


2016.06.09 | Carl Séan O’Brien, The Demiurge in Ancient Thought: Secondary Gods and Divine Mediators. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN: 9781107075368, £65.00.

Review by Paul Linjamaa, Lund University.

This book is a convenient and detailed compilation of ideas concerning the Demiurge and “demiurgry” in ancient thought—ideas on how the cosmos was generated and how matter was ordered and sustained. The work is the published version of a PhD-dissertation at Trinity College, Dublin.

The book begins with a  chapter that briefly introduces and situates the subject of “demiugry” and presents the Platonic background of it in relation to Stoic, Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian thought. Chapter 2 goes over to a detailed presentation of Plato’s introduction of the Demiurge-character in his Timaeus, as well his other dialogues. The main thrust of the book lies in chapters 3-10, in presenting the way Plato’s Demiurge was received and developed among philosophers (Jew, Gentile and Christian) from the first to the third century CE. These interpreters, O’Brien makes clear in the second chapter, differed from Plato’s immediate followers, such as Aristotle, Speusippus and Xenocrates, who viewed the Timaeus allegorically—as a pedagogical device for understanding world-generation—and for whom the Demiurge was a peripheral figure, if present at all.

Chapter 3 discusses Philo of Alexandria and his understanding of biblical events in light if Plato’s Timaeus. Philo often refers to God as demiourgos and the Platonic Forms are presented as the thoughts of God. O’Brien argues that Philo is more inspired by Platonism in his understanding of the Genesis story, more so than Jewish Wisdom literature. The question of Philo’s relation to and influence on later Middle Platonism is also briefly touched upon in this chapter, but no definite results are presented. Philo’s chief contribution to the speculations on creation, O’Brien writes, is the introduction of the Logos as a Demiurge-figure, personified as the highest God’s mediator and tool in the cosmos, as the “cutter,” the one who divides base elements and orders the cosmos.

The first part of chapter 4 is devoted to Plutarch’s criticism of and relation to the Stoics. Plutarch in particular rejected the Stoic’s view, as according to Plutarch’s reading, that god seemed to be constrained by destiny (the cosmos was destined for ekpyrosis—the periodical consumption of fire) and restricted by materiality. God for the Stoic’s was not separate from matter but acted on matter from within it, not from outside, such as in the Timaeus. O’Brien then turns to the view of god in the Isis myth in Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, where Plutarch mixes Egyptian mythology with exegesis of Plato´s Timaeus and ends up with a view of God as a triad of first principles Matter (Isis), Forms (transcendent Osiris) and the World-Soul (immanent Osiris). The last part of this chapter discusses the view of the Demiurge in Plutarch’s texts Quaestiones Platonicae, De E apud Delphos, and the somewhat neglected Quaestiones Convivales, and concludes that Plutarch’s view, his distinct dualism, is chiefly shaped by his attempt to “extricate himself from many of the problems he saw encountered by Stoicism” (115).

In chapter 5 O’Brien turns to Maximus of Tyre, for whom the Demiurge (Zeus) is the supreme God who continuously cares for and administers the cosmos. Maximus, O’Brien shows, is influenced by Stoic thought in his exegesis of the Timaeus and presents the Demiurge as limited by Necessity. In an attempt to solve the implications of this and defend the doctrine of human Free Will and a good God, Maximus introduces a more transcendent idea of the Demiurge and levels of Fate and Providence that could be seen as precursors of the Middle-Platonic tripartite systems of Fate/Providence/Free Will. Maximus never systematizes his thoughts, and thus O’Brien calls his views on the Demiurge “unsophisticated,” while his thoughts “lack originality” (117).

In chapter 6 Numenius of Apamea is discussed. Numenius differentiates between the highest God and the second demiurgic principle who is split by two when encountering matter (the Dyad). Numenius represents a development from earlier views of the Demiurge where he is a mediator or aspect of or the highest god (Plutarch/Philo). Numenius introduces a split between the first principle and the Demiurge, a split that becomes more accentuated in some later traditions.

Chapter 7 engages Hermeticism, based on the Poimandres, Asclepius and Corpus Hermeticum. The creation of the world is here not presented as a mistake, contrary to O’Brien’s understanding of “Gnostic” texts. The highest God, the first principle, is in hermetic writings often portrayed as the one engaged in demiurgic functions, O’Brien writes. The material world is, however, one of the lowest forms of existence and something humans have become entangled in and thus should seek to exit. Here we do not, O’Brien writes, find a particularly sophisticated idea of demiurgry. The texts are contradictory on the image of the Demiurge, the focus is instead rather on spiritual progress.

Chapter 8 discusses Gnosticism and O’Brien writes that it is here that the view of the Demiurge becomes totally separated from the first principle. In Gnosticism, O’Brien writes, the only thing left of the Platonic idea of the Demiurge is the name. The Valentinian view of creation is the main focus of this chapter. He concludes that there where many different views among Valentinians. Sophia, God’s Wisdom who falls in the beginning of time, becomes more prominent as a demiurgic figure while the Demiurge is portrayed as a lesser ignorant, although not necessarily evil, figure.

In chapter 9 O’Brien deals with Origen, a Christian alternative to the Middle Platonic speculations. In Origen the highest God creates through the Son, the Logos. For Origen, creation as well as evil is the result of the Free Will granted to the noetic beings created by God. God is not debased by the less perfect matter and by the existence of evil; instead, he works in the cosmos through the Son. O’Brien shows how deeply influential Plato’s Timaeus and Stoic thought was on Origen’s understanding of the Christian message, while also showing where Origen diverges from the platonic tradition, for example, in rejecting the idea that the stars are the origin of human souls.

The brief last chapter deals with Neoplatonism, particularly Plotinus and introduction of a radical form of monism that in effect is the demise of the idea of the Demiurge. Plotinus envisions the cosmos coming about through different stages of emanations, beginning with the clear bright light of the One, leading downward in stages to darker and heavier substances and ultimately matter, which is self-ordering and not in need of a constant meddling Demiurge.

Much of O’Brien’s discussion consists of situating himself among, and navigating through, the many previous scholars who have commented upon the use of Plato’s Timaeus among Hellenistic philosophers. The main argument, a convincing one, is that the thinkers discussed in the book are not just unrelated speculation of world-creation but are all influenced by Plato’s Timaeus. The differences among their presentations are a result of different readings and understandings of the Timaeus.

There are, however, some drawbacks in O’Brien’s study. Regarding the hermetic tradition, the Nag Hammadi texts are excluded. Since O’Brien’s study focuses on the first to the third century CE, a span within which the hermetic Nag Hammadi-texts (Codex VI:6-8) can be dated with relative certainty, they should have been included in the study. The second, more serious problem concerns the chapter on “Gnosticism.” A fundamental methodological fallacy renders much of this chapter problematic. O’Brien treats the Christian theologians whom the Church Fathers call Valentinians, and the Nag Hammadi texts identified as Valentinian by modern scholars, as representing a homogenous tradition, despite the fact that these “Valentinians” never thought of themselves (or called themselves) as anything other than Christians. We have no evidence of a unified Valentinian doctrine or Church (this is a polemical construct), and indeed, the diverse nature of the Valentinian texts point in the opposite direction. The difference made between Eastern and Western Valentinianism is also problematic. It is a paradigm abandoned by most scholars today in light of Joel Kalvesmaki’s article “Italian versus Eastern Valentinianism?” (Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 62:1 (2008): 79-89). These shortcomings are likely the result of the fact that O’Brien mostly uses outdated scholarship in this chapter (e.g., Quispel, Rudolph, Petrement, Filoramo).

Another shortcoming is his hasty treatment of Sethianism. Far more research has been done on the relationship between Platonism and the Sethian Nag Hammadi texts Zostrianos, Marsanes and Allogenes, than on Valentinianism. In his section on Sethianism, O’Brien also omits John Turner’s monumental work Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition (Peeters, 2001). Overall, it is unclear what O’Brien even means when he throughout the book refers to the “Gnostic view” or the “Gnostic conception” of different subjects. Why is not Hermetism counted as Gnosticism? What the term “Gnostic” refers to should have been clarified at the outset. In chapter 8 Gnosticism seems to refer to an “anti-cosmic tradition,” but this view of Gnosticism is indeed dated, which Michael A Williams has shown in his work Rethinking Gnosticism (a work O’Brien cites but ignores). Christian texts that have been labelled “Gnostic” do not necessarily include more anti-cosmic language than proto-orthodox writers, such as Clement.

Apart from these drawbacks in the discussions on “Gnosticism,” O’Brien’s book is an impressive compound and overview of the reception of Plato’s Timaeus, the development and ultimate disappearance of the Demiurge character, and demiurgy in the first to third centuries CE.

Paul Linjamaa
Lund University
paul.linjamaa [at]


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