'Thunder, Perfect Mind' is a poem from the Nag Hammadi texts. Stylistically, three separate styles are used in the poem: that of Hebrew wisdom-texts, of Isis aretalogies, and Platonic dialog. These three styles are used in alternation. Religiously, it is hard to identify the tradition this text comes from. It presents no distinctively Jewish, orthodox Christian, or gnostic Christian themes, not does it seem to presuppose any known gnostic 'myths.'
If the document is to be considered a gnostic document, a definition of gnostic must be tendered first. For now, the definition of Theodotus will be used, that 'what liberates us is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereunto we have been thrown; whereunto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.' 'Thunder: Perfect Mind' answers some of these questions, but not others.
The questions dealing with self-knowledge are dealt with very fully in the text. The tradition of Isis aretalogies is one of self-definition, aretalogies being strings of 'I am' statements. The part of the text like an Isis aretalogy describes the speaker in paradoxical but full detail. The very first section of the aretalogy text answers the questions of where the speaker comes from, where she has come to, and where she might be found. There is a slight deviation, in that she has actively come to 'those who reflect' upon her, rather than 'being thrown' to them, the idea of being removed from one's original habitation is there. In the sixth section of this part she says that she is an alien, as well as a citizen.
This brings up the question of what the point of the dichotomies in the aretalogy section is. They range from philosophical, political and social opposites to sexual and familial polarities. In each opposition of polarity, the speaker maintains that she encompasses both poles, or roles. She is 'the whore and the holy one.' She is 'the barren one, and she whose sons are many.' She is 'Knowledge and ignorance.' And she is 'the one whom they call Law, and you have called Lawlessness.'
In the last dichotomy, the difference may be ascribed to the people who call her either Law or Lawlessness, either 'they' or 'you.' Similar distinctions are made in other seemingly paradoxical statements in terms of temporal placement. The tenses change, for instance, in the fifth section in many statements, such as 'I am the one who is hated everywhere, and who has been loved everywhere.', 'I am the one whom you have despised, and you reflect upon me.' and 'I am the one whom you have hidden from, and you appear to me.' These distinctions, either temporal or nominal, are subservient to the larger message that the speaker is a very diverse personality. They are also only possible to discern in a small percentage of the proffered paradoxes. The main attempt is to define herself, not to set up distinctions in time or peoples. There is almost no cosmology or anthropology in this text, and this is a clue to the nature of the message of the text. The emphasis is on the person, not the cosmos; on the self, and not the environment.
In this aretalogy third of the text, there an attempt to transcend the intellect through intellectual paradox. By setting up identities between polar opposites the mind is set in circles, as it is by the Zen koans, until it is driven into the brick wall of impossibility. In the introduction to his translation of this text, MacRae states that '...the particular significance of the self-proclamations of 'Thunder: Perfect Mind' may be found in their antithetical character.' One might rather say that the significance must be found in their antithetical character. There is no other common denominator.
The second type of writing seen in this text is comparable to Hebrew wisdom literature. The excerpted and reconnected text is a series of hortatory instructions for those who would be gnostikoi, in the form of very short injunctions to 'Look upon me', 'Hear me', 'Do not be arrogant to me', etc. The speaker exhorts the reader to be on his guard twice, and not to be ignorant of her twice. This emphasis on care and awareness augments the intellectual exercises of the aretalogy section. One could easily skim over the polarities and not stop to reflect on them or their import, in which case their efficacy of liberation would be severely diminished. All three parts of this text work together.
The exhortations go on to impress upon the reader that he must be aware that the speaker encompasses all things, great and small, as well as left and right, male and female, royal and base, rich and poor. There is an element of the union of opposites here as well, the speaker saying she is compassionate and cruel, and obedient and self-controlled
In the third section of this part of the text, the instructions are to 'come forward to me, you who know me ... and establish the great ones among the small first creatures.' Here is some evidence of an organised attempt to proselytise, or establish a group of those who know the speaker. The fourth section also calls to 'you, who know me.'
They are told to learn the speaker's words, while those 'hearers' are told simply to hear. This suggests some form of hierarchy among the 'hearers' and the 'knowers'. The first step would seem to be that one must hear the voice, and then come to know it.
This could be a sign of the initiatory path, along which one must pass to come to gnosis. As noted above, the simple act of hearing the message intellectually would not be enough. One must pay special care to the paradoxes presented, and reflect upon them until illumination comes. The process can again be compared to the effect of koans, where one perceives them first as outright nonsense, 'the sound of one hand clapping,' etc., until one comes to the crux of where they attempt to fix the mind.
Where the 'Thunder: Perfect Mind' would fix the mind is on a realisation of the transcendence of the speaker, and eventually on the identification of the speaker with the hearer when that hearer becomes a knower. As it says in the sixth section of the aretalogy part, 'I am the knowledge of my inquiry, and the finding of those who seek after me, ... and of the spirits of every who exists with me, and of the women who dwell within me.' The path to gnosis and the traveler on that path are both played here by the character of the speaker.
Another point made by this part of the text like wisdom literature is that manifestation implies duality, and that to perceive in the world implies discrimination. The nature of the speaker comprehends all things, but to appear in the world she must choose one of the two halves of all those things through which to appear. As a complete being she would be both invisible and insensible in any way, since to contain both poles of being, such as 1 and -1, would be to equal 0. This has a parallel in the way of the Tao, in which one of the aims is to do everything by doing nothing. One might hear the speaker saying 'I am she who does everything, and nothing.' The idea is to incorporate in oneself a balance between action and non-action, yin and yang, and by doing such one gets beyond having to struggle with the world. There will be no antagonism between the person and then environment, once that person becomes one with the environment. (Or a reflection of it, by incorporating or epitomising all its elements.)
This shows the less ascetic nature of the text 'Thunder: Perfect Mind'. The world is not actively evil, but rather simply distracting due to its incomplete nature. When one gets beyond this, then one has improved, but there is no shame in being merely a 'hearer,' and not a 'knower.' The only desiderata are to hear and then to know, to balance oneself according to what one comes to know, and despise nothing along the way, for every thing is part of the transcendent whole. Here one could draw Deist parallels, intensifying the impression that the writers of this text did not see the world as inherently evil.
It is our perception of the world that causes the apparent evil of the world. To perceive something is to discriminate between it and its context. It is this separation or making of differences that allows us to operate in the world, but also that enslaves us to it by monopolising our attention. 'Thunder: Perfect Mind' insists that only by seeing the larger picture of unions of all opposites can we escape this servitude to the world. In other words, what liberates us is the knowledge of into what we have been thrown, or have come.
The last section, the fifth of this part of the text, is a final exhortation to the reader to 'look,' 'give heed' and be aware of who speaks and what that means, that by encompassing all things she is 'the one who alone exists,' comprising all, 'and ... no one who will judge' her exists outside her. This extreme recognition of the unity of oneself with the cosmos, of subject with object, and of positive and negative, leads to an extension of the self to the limits of perception. Sometimes this continues to the point that manifestation requires a relimitation by definition of person. As the speaker has done this, the extension and then the relimitation in order to communicate, she also implies that it is an achievement attainable by all, if one will just 'hear' and 'know.'
The third part of the text represents Greece, as the first two reflect the Egyptian and Judaic strands of the Hellenistic world. It consists of questions and answers, not always on philosophical subjects, but always leading to philosophical points. It is similar in many ways to the prototypical Platonic dialogue in which the interlocutor is led to the truth of the matter by way of dialectic. Another parallel would be the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in that chariot.
There are six sections to this part of the text, as it has been cut up and fitted to the other two parts, and the first five display an elegant ring composition. Section one is a question and amplification of the question, while section five is the answer to it. Section two is another question and amplification, answered by section four. Section three is the center point, pointing out the union of the two questions and their respective answers. Section six is a conclusion of sorts, resuming that which the dialogue has attempted to draw.
The first question is why the reader, and people in general, display contradictory behavior. This is not a psychological type of inquiry, into the roots of irrationality, but rather another attempt to unveil the nature of the speaker. The contradictory behavior referred to deals with the reader's reaction to the speaker, and the nature of complete being in general. If complete being entails all things, then it elicits all responses, each of which will have an opposite reaction that will be elicited simultaneously (or thereabouts). Love and hate, truth and lie, knowledge and ignorance are all part of man's reactions to the world.
The answer to this problem is contained in section five. The incompleteness of things, inside and outside, judge and judged, condemning and acquitting; these distinctions elicit opposite responses to each of their halves, yet both halves are only that: halves of a whole, which elicits both love and hate, fear and confidence, and obedience and self-control. The way out of the world of appearances is again to realise the unity of opposites, that what is seen inside is what is outside also.
The second question is directed toward the question of the ignorance of these unions of opposites. 'Why have you hated me,' asks the unity, 'Because I am a barbarian among barbarians? Because I don't speak the language of any specific nation, not even those who don't speak your language? Because I speak of universals?' The answer is that 'those who are without association with me are ignorant of me, and those who are in my substance are the ones who know me.' Those who know, know; those who don't don't. One cannot understand the nature of the speaker or the world until one becomes a part of it, and all the parts of it. The antithetical and polarised nature continues to be shown, 'On the day when I am close to you, you are far away from me, and on the day when I am far away from you, I am close to you.'
The third section unites these two questions of the manifestation of opposites, and the difficulty of perception of perfection. (not to mention perfection of perception!) Both problems stem from human nature in the world of manifestation. The separation of opposites, needed for perception of manifested things, is necessary to operate in the world as humans with human limitations, as these limitations are usually counted. But the speaker here says the real need ideally is not to separate, and thus to come to a realisation of the unity. This is similar to the idea of samadhi, where the subject and object of contemplation are united in a flash of illumination.
Section six concludes, saying that the worldly forms are pleasant, but numerous, disgraceful, and fleeting. When men 'become sober and go up to their resting place.... they will find me there, and they will live, and they will not die again.' This implies the possibility of a permanent state of comprehension of the unity of opposites.
Now we can see where Theodotus' definition of gnosticism is and is not exemplified by 'Thunder: Perfect Mind'. The writers of this text were concerned with most of Theodotus' questions, but not all. They provide answers for where we have come from, and whereunto we have been thrown. They address the question of who we were, what we have become, but not really what birth is, and what rebirth. Nor do they proffer answers to whereunto we speed, or wherefrom we are redeemed, beyond the answers to the first questions of where we were and where we are. The answers that are offered deal with personal rather than cosmological questions (if there is a difference). The issue is primarily one of self-liberation, rather than redemption, unless the reception of the 'good news' of unity is to be considered redemption.
This difference of degree of activity and passivity between Theodotus and the speaker of 'Thunder: Perfect Mind' is revealed in the answers to whereunto we have been thrown, and wherefrom we are redeemed. In 'Thunder: Perfect Mind''s view we came ourselves to this world, and liberate ourselves through Hearing and Knowing. What liberates us is still the knowledge, but the knowledge of slightly different things. The lack of cosmology or theology in the text, compared to other texts in the Nag Hammadi library, suggests the comparison rather to the more psychological sect of Buddhism [Craig Schenk's Note: Theravada] in contrast to the majority of Mahayana that has absorbed local religious or theological superstructure.
The path suggested by the text towards illumination is a strictly intellectual path to the transcendence of intellect. Through the mortification of the mind rather than of the flesh one may achieve gnosis. There is therefore no need for a theology on which to hang precepts of asceticism. The authors of the text say simply that when one understands the facts, one gives up the preoccupation of the world as incomplete.
The gnosticism exemplified by this text then, is transcendental, syncretic, and hortatory. It is transcendent in that it looks at the world and insists that there is a larger reality beyond what we see as separate, discrete things. It is syncretic in that it uses three distinct literary styles to get across its point. These three texts may have been actual texts on their own before incorporation into this text, or they may not. They fit so smoothly into each other in terms of subject continuity that were they originally distinct texts, they must have been revised for the purpose. The authors are hortatory as opposed to imperative in that they say that if you come to their idea of unity, then you will be less confused by the complexity of the world. If you do not, then you will stick to all those pleasant forms of passions and fleeting pleasures, and simply not achieve peace. They do not threaten any punishment for ignorance, only a perpetuation of a potentially temporary confusion.
The comparisons of the three styles of writings is profitable only in so far as it serves to conveniently categorise the material. Too strict an analogy to the three styles would be blinding as well. The content is radically different in message from the usual content of any of the borrowed forms. Again, what must be looked at to explain the meaning of the text is the antithetical nature of the 'I am' statements, and their commentary in the other two styles of text. The medium (in this case) is not the message. The function of the text must be considered to be not philosophical speculation, theological or moral exhortation or religious definition, as the borrowed types were, but rather psychological revelation, buttressed by practical exhortation and logical proof.
What really qualifies the author or authors of this text for consideration as excellent and true gnostics is their appropriation of existing forms, whether myths, ritual speeches, or philosophical methods, and turning them to their own ends.